This week, 116 specialists from 26 countries responsible for companies collectively worth hundreds of billions of pounds, released an open letter calling for an all out ban on the development of weapons and robots capable of killing autonomously.

Tesla’s Elon Musk and Google Deepmind founder Mustafa Suleyman along with robotic experts from countries including but not exclusive to the USA, France, China, Germany, Russia and Japan have warned that a failure to ban the development of autonomous weapons could lead to a deadly arms race and what would likely become the third revolution in warfare, following the development of gunpowder and nuclear weapons.

The open letter released to the UN and timed to coincide with the opening of the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence speaks gravely of the looming threat humanity faces with the production of weapons without conscience.

The letter states,“lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.”

Once thought of as a threat based only in the realm of science fiction, murderous robots are beginning to appear more plausible with each development in the scientific community. The letter continues, “these can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”

Rather than being a threat faced decades in the future, experts are now warning that combat ready conscience free AI could be deployed within a matter of years, Bonnie Doherty, Senior Arms Researcher of Human Rights speaking last year said; “Machines have long served as instruments of war, but historically humans have directed how they are used. Now there is a real threat that humans would relinquish their control and delegate life and death decisions to machines.”

It would be hard to disagree that The Manhattan Project and the development and deployment of the atomic bomb has led to the greatest threat to the complete annihilation of the human race, and if the smartest minds in the world, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak included, claim that autonomous weapons are an even graver threat, it’s a threat nations around the world should be taking seriously.

The progression of a robot arms race would unmistakeably lead to huge global instability and the very real threat of civilian casualties. A previous letter signed by scientific luminaries such as Hawking and Musk forced the UN into formal talks on deadly technologies, but has yet to result in any outright ban.

Weapons of this grade are actually in production even before this weeks open letter. The South Korean government currently use the Samsung SGR-A1 sentry gun which is reportedly capable of firing autonomously, however it has been argued that it has yet to be deployed as such. In use along the South Korean border’s Demilitarised Zone, it has capabilities of surveillance, voice recognition and tracking. Its deadlier functions include the ability to fire a machine gun and launch grenades.

Whilst both the US and Russian armed forces are developing robotic tanks with the ability of remote control or autonomous combat options, the UK Government in 2015, voted against an outright ban on

developing these weapons of mass destruction. Stating that “current humanitarian laws provide sufficient regulation.”

The Open Letter has a final ominous warning; “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s Box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

With the existential threat to life on earth growing at an exponential rate, dangers that include global warming, over population, disease, nuclear annihilation and the evolution of AI. It seems that one aspect rings true…

The greatest threat to mankind’s existence is almost certainly mankind.

You can read the Open Letter sent to the UN here.