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The Bad Thing About LAWS

One of my daughters once proposed that my t-shirt should read: “I don’t support war, but war supports me.” And it’s true, I suppose.

I write about lots of other things too, but I have been studying war, writing about wars, going to wars (but never fighting in one) for the whole of my adult life, partly because international relations are so heavily militarised, but also because for anybody who is interested in human behaviour, war is as fascinating as it is horrible.

So you might assume that I would leap into action, laptop in hand, when I learned that almost 3,000 “researchers, experts and entrepreneurs” have signed an open letter calling for a ban on developing artifical intelligence (AI) for “lethal autonomous weapons systems” (LAWS), or military robots for short. Instead, I yawned. Heavy artillery fire is much more terrifying than the Terminator.

The people who signed the letter included celebrities of the science and high-tech worlds like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, Demis Hassabis, chief executive of Google DeepMind and, of course, Noam Chomsky. They presented their letter in late July to the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, meeting this year in Buenos Aires.

They were quite clear about what worried them: “The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. 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 populations, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnc cleansing, etc.”

“Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilising 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.”

Well, no, it wouldn’t be beneficial for humanity. Few arms races are. But are autonomous weapons really “the key question for humanity today”? Probably not.

We have a few other things on our plate that feel a lot more “key”, like climate change, nine civil wars in the Muslim parts of the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, southeastern Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and northeastern Nigeria) – and, of course, nuclear weapons.

The scientists and experts who signed the open letter were quite right to demand an international agreement banning further work on autonomous weapons, because we don’t really need yet another high-tech way to kill people. It’s not impossible that they might succeed, either, although it will be a lot harder than banning blinding laser weapons or cluster bombs.

But autonomous weapons of the sort currently under development are not going to change the world drastically. They are not “the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms,” as one military pundit breathlessly described them. They are just another nasty weapons system.

What drives the campaign is a conflation of two different ideas: weapons that kill people without a human being in the decision-making loop, and true AI. The latter certainly would change the world, as we would then have to share our world for good or ill with non-human intelligences – but almost all the people active in the field say that human-level AI is still a long way off in the future, if it is possible at all.

As for weapons that kill people without a human being choosing the victims, those we have in abundance already. From land mines to nuclear-tipped missiles, there are all sorts of weapons that kill people without discrimination in the arsenals of the world’s armed forces. We also have a wide variety of weapons that will kill specific individuals (guns, for example), and we already know how to “selectively kill a particular ethnic group,” too.

Combine autonomous weapons with true AI, and you get the Terminator, or indeed Skynet. Without that level of AI, all you get is another way of killing people that may, in certain circumstances, be more efficient than having another human being do the job. It’s not pretty, but it’s not very new either.

The thing about autonomous weapons that really appeals to the major military powers is that, like the current generation of remote-piloted drones, they can be used with impunity in poor countries. Moreover, like drones, they don’t put the lives of rich-country soldiers at risk. That’s a really good reason to oppose them – and if poor countries realise what they are in for, a good opportunity to organise a strong diplomatic coalition that works to ban them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 14. (“I write…horrible”; and “Combine…either”)

The Falkland Islands: Not Again, Surely?

18 February 2010

The Falkland Islands: Not Again, Surely?

By Gwynne Dyer

Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s finest writer, dismissed the Falklands War of 1982 as “two bald men fighting over a comb,” but it killed almost a thousand British and Argentine soldiers, sailors and airmen anyway. So what would happen if the bald men started fighting over something really valuable, like oil?

Any day now a deep-sea drilling rig will arrive from Scotland and start searching for oil and gas in the North Falkland basin, about 150 km. (100 miles) north of the islands. Optimistic predictions suggest that there are up to 60 billion barrels of oil to be found around the Falklands. There might also be not very much at all — but Argentina has begun issuing warnings and veiled threats again.

This may only be bluster, but Argentina has claimed the islands, which it calls the Islas Malvinas, for almost two centuries. The local population are all English-speakers, mainly of British descent, and back in 1982 the islands’ economy was based almost entirely on sheep. The Falklands had no value – but Argentina invaded anyway, because the military regime in Buenos Aires needed a boost in popularity and it looked like an easy win.

It should have been an easy victory for the military junta, because the islands are only 500 km. (300 miles) from Argentina and they are 13,000 km. (8,000 miles) from Britain. Moreover, Britain had substantially cut its military presence in the region, which suggested to the Argentine generals that it wasn’t really committed to the islands’ defence.

The British Foreign Office wasn’t (and the foreign secretary of the time had to resign because of his neglect), but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher certainly was. She sent a British task force to take the islands back, fought a two-month war at the end of an impossibly long supply line, and won. Which seemed, for a time, to have settled matters.

Argentina never did abandon its claim, and it never will. It has been drummed into many generations of Argentine schoolchildren that “The Malvinas are Argentina’s”, and the claim has become one of the pillars of Argentine nationalism. But defeat in the Falklands led to the collapse of the military regime, and subsequent democratic governments in Buenos Aires re-opened trade and travel ties with the islands.

Meanwhile, the previously impoverished islanders grew prosperous by selling licenses to exploit the rich fishing resources in the islands’ territorial waters. Oil drilling got underway in 1998, but stopped again when the world oil price dropped below $10 per barrel. (Seabed oil is expensive oil.) The population grew by 50 percent, to the present total of 3,000. And all seemed well.

Things started to look worrisome again in 2007, when Argentina’s then-president, Nestor Kirchner, unilaterally cancelled an agreement with the United Kingdom to share the exploitation of offshore resources including possible oil reserves. It would have prevented the current dispute from arising, but the political value of the Malvinas claim in Argentina is greater than the potential economic value of oil from the seas around the Falklands.

In response to the approach of the drilling rig last week, President Cristina Kirchner (the husband-and-wife team take turns in the presidency) decreed that all vessels travelling between Argentina and the Falklands, or those wanting to cross Argentine territorial waters en route to the islands, must seek prior permission. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly what that means.

Since Buenos Aires insists that all the seas around the Falklands belong to Argentina, it could amount to a blockade of the Falklands. Her chef de cabinet, Anibal Fernandez, said the decree sought to achieve “not only a defence of Argentine sovereignty but also of all the resources” in the area – and deputy foreign minister Victorio Taccetti said his country would take “adequate measures” to stop oil exploration.

On the other hand, Britain now keeps a thousand troops plus strike aircraft and warships in the once defenceless Falkland Islands: an Argentine attack on the drilling platform would not be easy, and another invasion is almost impossible. Nevertheless, William Hague, former leader of the Conservative Party, who is likely to be the British foreign secretary after the May election, is urging the government to reinforce the Falklands now.

“One of the things that went wrong in the 1980s is that the Argentines thought we weren’t really committed to the Falkland Islands,” warned Hague. “So, we mustn’t make that mistake again. Our commitment should be very clear.”

Maybe this is all merely a pantomime, but it’s not just a quarrel about a comb. It’s not really about potential oil resources, either. If it were, Nestor Kirchner would never have cancelled the Argentina-UK agreement on sharing the offshore resources. It’s about holding power in Buenos Aires.

That was what really motivated the junta’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982. There is an election due in Argentina next year, and one of the Kirchners is likely to run again. Another lost war would not be politically helpful, but a crisis could be very useful. We may be hearing more from the South Atlantic.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Argentina…islands”; and “One…clear”)