Calif. county ponders ban on killer robots

Wednesday, December 13, 2017
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San Mateo County's Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pondered proposing a nationwide ban on something that doesn't exist -- yet.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- San Mateo County's Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pondered proposing a nationwide ban on something that doesn't exist -- yet.

VIDEO: Disturbing simulation shows power, terror of killer robots

But a growing list of scientists say they believe autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence could make for a future that's worse than nuclear war -- and say they want governments to take action.

"Your kids probably have one of these, right? Not quite," says a clean-cut man holding a tiny drone in a filmmaker's dramatization of what looks like a Silicon Valley keynote.

"It does facial recognition," the character explains. "Inside there is 3 grams of shaped explosive."

The short film called "Slaughterbots" has racked up millions of views on YouTube, and was produced by the Future of Life Institute, which receives funding from Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. It includes an afterword by U.C. Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell, who co-authored a recent paper on artificial intelligence with Stanford lecturer Todd Davies.

"It's pretty realistic for what we're going to be looking at in the not-too-distant future," Davies told the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors after showing them an excerpt from the film.

Davies spoke in support of Supervisor Dave Canepa, who introduced a resolution that would have the county officially ask Congress and the United Nations to ban autonomous weapons.

"No robot should ever have the ability to decide whether any of us should live or die," Canepa told fellow board members in Tuesday's meeting.

Also signed up to speak was Stanford Ph.D. student Michael Tessler, who told supervisors he's a descendant of Holocaust survivors.

"In the future, you can program robots to figure out people of a certain race or ethnicity that you want to destroy," Tessler said.

But before taking on the subject of the weapons themselves, Supervisors will have to answer the more basic question of whether local government should even be getting involved with this international issue.

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"It feels to me a little -- it's too far outside our core orbit," Supervisor Dave Pine said to Canepa in the meeting.

Canepa maintains it's a local issue.

"This technology is being developed in San Mateo and Santa Clara County," he said. "We're in the heart of Silicon Valley."

But lacking the support to pass his resolution, Canepa withdrew it and agreed to work with Pine on a policy that would more clearly guide which national issues San Mateo County officially weighs in on. He could reintroduce the resolution next month, during the January 23 board meeting.

"Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, people who deal in the AI robotics community, they know this is an issue, and that it's a problem," he said.

Davies said he hopes Bay Area governments make their voices heard to Congress.

"To me, the scariest thing (about an autonomous drone attack) is that there's really no practical defense against it," he said.