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Ambitions Postponed: Killer Robots in Debate, Between Science Fiction and Political Reality

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

An open letter was just issued at the world’s biggest artificial intelligence conference – the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) – for the outright banning of ‘lethal autonomous weapons’, more commonly known as killer robots. The letter, signed by a 116 of the top robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) companies and from 26 countries, was a plea to the United Nations; an organisation that is (typically) dithering over a final decision on the possibility of a robot arms race.

This issue was raised in 2015 when Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky and tech billionaire Elon Musk lead the call for the international banning of such weapons, also in an open letter at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina. What’s different this time round is that ‘companies’ in the industry itself are taking a stand, something you wouldn’t expect them to do given that profits are the bottom line for any and every industry. Nonetheless, in the new letter industry heads warned that such artificially intelligent weapons “threaten to become the third revolution in warfare”, allowing “armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.”[1]


Art Ahead of the Times

Speed is the key notion here. As Stephen Hawking warned, as far back as 2014, the “development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” since humans are “limited by slow biological evolution”. Mankind “couldn’t compete, and would be superseded” whereas an AI-machine could “re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.”[2]

Those words could have been taken from Terminator Genisys (2015): “Skynet is evolving. We no longer have hours. It will be able to upload much sooner. Each time it ages, the time speeds up.” You actually witness Skynet rapidly maturing in holographic form from a child to a man, bragging out load about how it has accomplished what it took mankind to do in millions of years of biological evolution. Art is always one step ahead, even if in such a lacklustre addition to the Terminator franchise as Genisys. This is all the more amazing since the movie wasn’t really about computers at all, but post-9/11 politics. That’s a boon itself because it helps you anticipate new and unexpected problems that the technologists and businessmen are only just beginning to wake up to, as we speak.

A screenshot from the original The Terminator (1984). Arnold will always ‘be back’ if science in the pay of politics has anything to say about it.

In the story the terminator machine is described as an infiltration unit that blindly follows directives it itself isn’t aware of; it behaves nicely so you learn to trust it then these secret directives kick in and, wham, it’s too late. This is an old, old fear Americans have, manifesting itself differently over different eras. Before the Second World War it was anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti, during the War it was Nazi spies, during the Cold War it was Soviet ‘sleeper’ agents, after the Cold War initially it was the Japanese and their ‘agents of influence’ (lobbyists and other stoolpigeons). Now it’s Arab and Muslim ‘sleeper cells’, people who pretend to be good American citizens who are in fact loyal to foreign states backing terrorism. (And they always seem to live in respectable middle class neighbourhoods, just like the axe murderer next door).

Note that Skynet infects John Conner, the leader of the human resistance, transforming him into a terminator from the inside out, presumably using some form of nanobot technology. Even the T-1000 is played by a Korean actor (Byung-hun Lee) who enjoys slightly European features. That’s the Trump formula for you!


Washington’s Backwards March

Lessons abound from an even worse sci-fi flick – Robocop (2014), a remake and not a sequel to the classic 1987 movie. Here you have a clearly imperialist America debating whether it should use its AI-drone technology at home, just as it uses it abroad to monitor and quash resistance movements in occupied lands. The company that’s wants to cash in on this is OmniCorp, and they create a cyborg (mix of human and machine) to popularise their products.

I won’t bore you with the details of the storyline because there almost isn’t one but the point is that you can see this progression from the tools of empire washing up on domestic shores as an analogy for wars of democracy turning into despotism at home. To cite the 2017 letter again: “These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.” (The Genisys operating system is described as the ultimate ‘Trojan Horse’).

The whole point of autonomous weapons is that they’re autonomous. They can make up their minds who is the enemy and who needs to be protected, even if it means protecting citizens from themselves. (If you don’t have any freedom, you can’t harm yourself, can you). You can see this in a scene in Robocop where the erstwhile hero, even after he’s regained his humanity (the drugs they use to control his brain stop having the required effect), goes on the quest for revenge and resorts to torture and violating civil liberties. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, in this regard, that the director of the 2014 flick – José Padilha – is a Brazilian. He knows these excuses about security and national unity all too well and what happens when you trust the tools of enforcing the law without question.

The original Robocop (1987), when autonomy served more than a self-serving purpose!

They stop becoming ‘tools’ and begin to function of their own volition. More recently Elon Musk just got into a tiff with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook over AI. As Zuckerberg put it: “I think that people who are naysayers and kind of trying to drum up these doomsday scenarios–I just, I don’t understand it. I think it’s really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible.”[3]

Facebook (and Google) used to be anti-establishment. Now they practically are the establishment, actively and openly cooperating with the CIA to ‘infiltrate’ people’s homes through internet surveillance. And if you’ve watched Snowden (2016), a docudrama that is most definitely not science fiction, you’ll know that the internet warrants they issue are both bogus and self-serving.

Well, they say production for the next Terminator movie has been postponed till 2019, when the originator of the series, James Cameron, reacquires the rights to the franchise. Let’s just hope the above mentioned meeting of minds – scientists, artists, industrialists – will pre-empt the UN into taking a final decision, before then!!


[1] Chris Pash, “The world’s top artificial intelligence companies are pleading for a ban on killer robots”, Business Insider, August 21, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/top-artificial-intelligence-companies-plead-for-a-ban-on-killer-robots-2017-8.

[2] “Hawking, Chomsky, Musk and 1,000 other experts warn of AI arms race”, Press TV, July 28, 2017, http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/07/28/422297/AI-robots-letter-Hawking-Chomsky-Musk.

[3] Scott Mautz, “Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg Exchange Heated Words Over AI. Whose Side Are You On?”, Inc. 5000, August 17, 2017, https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/elon-musk-and-mark-zuckerberg-exchange-heated-word.html.

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