Elon Musk is designing spaceships to ferry astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond, but he is now one of three major technology players warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Joining him are famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, along with more than 1,000 other signatories to a letter warning of dire potential effects from the development of robots programmed for war.

Autonomous weapons, robots capable of killing human targets without guidance from controllers, are nearly within reach from a technological standpoint, the trio warns. Such systems could start to come into existence in just a few years, researchers warn. These weapons are being described by some people as the third great revolution in warfare, following gun powder and nuclear weapons. 

The technological leaders warned that such devices could soon be developed that would be ideal for subduing populations, carrying out assassinations, or even targeting all members of a particular race or ethnicity.

"Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc.," the Future of Life Institute declared.

The organizers of the letter warn that if any nation moves forward with the development of autonomous weapons, an arms race will likely ensue between rival nations. The signatories, which include some of the top names in robotics research around the world today, argue robots programmed to strike live targets without intervention will have a lower threshold than humans when determining whether or not to carry out a mission. 

A consumer drone equipped with a handgun recently ignited controversy on the World Wide Web, although that device was being remotely controlled by a human being.

While Wozniak, Hawking, and Musk warn of the dangers of autonomous weapons, proponents of the systems contend that deployment of the devices could save the lives of soldiers. The Future of Life foundation counters that AI could be utilized in numerous ways to save lives on the battlefield, especially the lives of civilians, without the development of new weapons systems.  

"The endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting," the authors wrote in the statement.

The letter was presented at IJCAI-15, the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, which is being held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, through July 31. The IJCAI is the main international gathering of researchers in AI.

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