On AI and the military, researchers look to draw a line

Google researchers and academics across the world are petitioning organizations on the cutting edge of AI to steer their efforts away from military applications.

data science (chombosan/Shutterstock.com)

Researchers with Google and academics across the world are petitioning organizations on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research to steer their efforts away from military AI applications, particularly autonomous lethal weapons.

Concerns about the ethical implications of AI are nothing new, but as governments and industry continue to invest in a number of technologies that fall under the artificial intelligence umbrella, the question of where -- and how -- researchers and industry should draw ethical lines around military applications has become increasingly relevant.

In an open letter first published by the New York Times on April 4, Google employees urged CEO Sundar Pichai to end the company's participation in Project Maven, a Pentagon program designed to apply big data analytics and machine learning to aerial imagery captured by drones and improve military decision-making. Those employees who signed -- more than 3,000, according to the Times -- argued the company “should not be in the business of war.”

“Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance -- and potentially lethal outcomes -- is not acceptable,” the letter read.

A collection of nearly 60 AI experts and academics from around the world recently put out a similar letter, calling for a boycott of South Korean-based KAIST University over its decision to partner with Hanwha Systems, a leading South Korean defense contractor, to open a new research center dedicated to AI and military convergence.

Marie DesJardins, a professor of computer science at University of Maryland Baltimore County and one of the signatories of the KAIST letter, told FCW she is not being pollyannish when it comes to AI. DesJardins said she doesn’t believe in “Terminator” scenarios where sentient machines turn on their human masters, and recognizes that even if the U.S. eschews the use of AI in military operations, other countries won’t necessarily follow suit.

She has concerns about other implications on the technology, but she draws a bright red line at autonomous weapons systems, arguing that if left unchecked, they could one day facilitate killing on a scale that would make such systems as dangerous as nuclear weapons. DesJardins said she signed the letter because KAIST was not clear about whether the center would draw any ethical boundaries around its research, while the partnership with Hanwha Systems, which traffics in missile systems, tanks and other weapons of war, indicated the potential for work on autonomous weapons.   

“We need to be working globally to think about this issue, just as we thought a lot as a species about nuclear proliferation,” said DesJardins. “There’s the same potential here, you can develop essentially weapons of mass destruction very easily if you have autonomous weapons.”

The letter spurred a response from KAIST University President Sung-Chul Shin. In a letter obtained by FCW, Shin assured the signatories that the research center “aims to develop algorithms on efficient logistical systems, unmanned navigation [and] aviation training systems,” but it will steer clear of “autonomous weapon lacking meaningful human control.”

“I would like to reaffirm that KAIST does not have any intention to engage in development of lethal autonomous weapons systems,” wrote Shin. “KAIST is significantly aware of ethical concerns in the application of all technologies including artificial intelligence.”

Another signatory, University of Michigan computer science and engineering professor Benjamin Kuipers, told FCW via email that his interpretation of Shin’s comments indicates that the center will stay within acceptable bounds of military-based AI research.

“From my individual point of view, as a person not accustomed to parsing diplomatic statements, this sounds like a satisfactory response,” Kuipers wrote --  though he noted “the intentions of an individual or an organization can change at any time.”

There’s little in the way of formally recognized standards to guide researchers, and the oncoming AI arms race means military officials and policymakers could exert pressure to push the limits.

In an April 5 post reacting to the Google letter, the Electronic Frontier Foundation advised companies who develop AI technologies for government to “start by recognizing that there are no settled public standards for safety and ethics in this sector yet. [A company] cannot just assume that the contracting military agency has fully assessed the risks or that it doesn't have a responsibility to do so independently.”

DesJardins echoed those thoughts, saying society lacks agreed-upon rules about which forms of AI military work raise unique ethical concerns and which are like any other weapon of war. Partnership between the research community, government officials and technology manufacturers will be necessary to set such standards, and she said she believes an international treaty might be needed in the end.

“We’re deploying these things way faster than we’re developing our understanding of what the limitations are,” DesJardins said.

Not everyone is quite so concerned. Anton Chuvakin, a research vice president for technology consulting firm Gartner, said he does not understand the outrage, particularly in the case of the Google letter. He said current AI technologies are child’s play compared to the versions that regularly scare moviegoers and are more akin to advanced software systems computing mathematical formulas.

“To me, a lot of the current AI is mathematics and statistics. There’s no consciousness, there’s no intelligence,” he said. “It isn’t like they built a killer robot for the Pentagon.”

Chuvakin and DesJardins both agree that such killer-robot technology, if it is even possible, would not rear its head for decades. As for modern applications, Chuvakin said that other countries will move forward with AI research that pushes the boundaries regardless of how the U.S. chooses to proceed. Eschewing military AI applications, he warned, could put the U.S. at a fatal long-term strategic disadvantage.

Still, even Chuvakin acknowledged that one particular form of attainable AI does give him pause and warrants a larger ethical debate.

“Anything that leads to automated decision-making to kill people is probably the line I would draw,” he said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.