tisdag 21 november 2017

Killer robots and the meaning of sensationalism

When I give talks on AI (artificial intelligence) futurology, I usually point out autonomous weapons development as the most pressingly urgent problem we need to deal with. The open letter on autonomous weapons that I co-signed (among thousands of other scientists) in 2015 phrases the problem well, and I often quote the following passage:
    If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. 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. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity.
Some of these points were made extremely vividly in a video (featuring Stuart Russell) released a couple of weeks ago by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. The video is very scary, but I encourage you to watch it nevertheless:

In an op-ed last Wednesday in The Guardian that has gained much attention, computer scientist Subbarao Kambhampati criticizes the video and the campaign. Kambhampati does have have some important points, in particular his main concern, which is that a UN ban on killer robots is unlikely to be successful. There is much to say about this, but here I'd just like to comment on a much narrower issue,1 namely Kambhampati's use of the term sensationalism. He repeatedly calls the video sensationalist, and adds that it is "more an exercise at inflaming rather than informing public opinion". While it is true that the content of the video is sensational, the term sensationalism also signals the claim that the video's message is unwarranted, exaggerated and overblown. But it is not, or at least Kambhampati does not provide any evidence that it is; in fact, his main concern in the op-ed about the implausibility of a weapons ban being effective just adds to the plausibility of the nightmarish scenario depicted in the video becoming reality. The severe badness of a future scenario does not in itself warrant calling warnings about such a scenario sensationalism.2 For that, one would need the scenario to be farfetched and improbable. Kambhampati's dichotomy between "inflaming" and "informing" is also unwarranted. The video is highly informative, and if the severe danger that it informs about makes people agitated, then that is as it should be.


1) I can't resist, however, commenting on one more thing about Kambhampati's op-ed, namely his full disclosure at the end, containing the passage "However, my research funding sources have no impact on my personal views". This, in my opinion, is almost synonymous to saying "I am incredibly naive, and I expect my readers to be so as well".

2) Thus, Kambhampati's use of the term sensationalism is analogous to how climate denialists have for a long term routinely used the term alarmism whenever results from climate science indicate that global warming may turn out to have severe conequences.

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