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Was the meeting of UN’s Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems cancelled to delay action affecting UK and US investment?

In 2015 Max Tegmark (professor, MITT) reported, in the Future of Life Institute, that Artificial Intelligence & Robotics researchers warned in an open letter:

“Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is—practically if not legally—feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”

Today (Aug. 21), Quartz reports that in a second open letter a group of specialists from 26 nations, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, as well as other leaders in robotics and artificial-intelligence companies, called for the United Nations to ban the development and use of autonomous weapons.

In recent years Musk has repeatedly warned against the dangers of AI, donating millions to fund research that ensures artificial intelligence will be used for good, not evil. He joined other tech luminaries in establishing OpenAI, a nonprofit with the same goal in mind and part of his donation went to create the Future of Life Institute.

“As companies building the technologies in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons, we feel especially responsible in raising this alarm. We warmly welcome the decision of the UN’s Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. Many of our researchers and engineers are eager to offer technical advice to your deliberations . . .

“Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

The first meeting for the UN’s recently established Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems is now planned for November. It was to be held today, but was cancelled, the letter notes, “due to a small number of states failing to pay their financial contributions to the UN.”

Critics have argued for years that UN action on autonomous weapons is taking too long.

The UK and the US have increased investment on robotic and autonomous systems by committing to a joint programme (announced by UK Defence Minister Philip Dunne and US Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall, right).

Observers say the UK and US are seeking to protect their heavy investment in these technologies – some directly harmful and others servicing  military operations – by ‘watering down’ an agreement so that it only includes emerging technology, meaning that any weapons put into practice while discussions continue are beyond the reach of a ban.





Taxpayers unwittingly fund GM trials as the prospect of leaving wiser European counsellors looms

Will agri-business be allowed to charge ahead, imposing genetically modified food on an unwilling public?  

This is Rothamsted research centre, one of the country’s largest agricultural research stations.

The work is publicly funded through a £696,000 grant from the government’s UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and $294,000 from the US Department of Agriculture. Other partners include the universities of Lancaster and Illinois.




Why has America’s National Academy of Sciences focussed so much research on Facebook?

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NAS, established by an Act of Congress, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.

In 2011 Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times had mild issues with Google:

robert shrimsley “Google would like to use my locational data. It wants to know where I am, and to help me organise all my personal information. Google is always thinking of new things it can do for me. Google is my mother . . . If I mention in passing in a Gmail that I’m feeling under the weather, Google will instantly recommend some vitamins or offer me the details of the Wellman clinic . . .

Facebook, of course, is your friends, cheerfully telling you what to do and where to go. “Hey, Robert, don’t forget John’s birthday. Lots of your friends are buying the Twilight saga.” This explains its success, because, let’s face it, you put up with this kind of nannying from your mates. Or Amazon – a man you see in the pub telling you what you really ought to read. This is our new extended support network. We may not talk to our blood relatives from one week to the next, but our virtual family is a constant presence, caring, suggesting, attending to our every need; there for us at any hour of the day, arms open just waiting for us to embrace them.

But three years later – after Facebook’s senior executive, Sheryl Sandberg, apologises for conducting secret psychological tests on nearly 700,000 users in 2012, he jests:

“Facebook is going to kill the president. Seriously; the evil technologists are running psychological experiments on our news feed to play with our emotions. I’m telling you; it is Homeland all over again. Or to rephrase that for an older generation: we are the Manchurian Candidate . . .

But adds: “If it can manipulate your mood (which the tests show it could) then with its huge reach, Facebook has worrying power”

He was referring to news that Facebook had secretly run psychological experiments on 700,000 users; tampering with their news feed to expose them to more positive or negative posts and tracking the impact on their activity.

A search led to a link to the scientific paper in question which was published in the March issue of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences and may be downloaded here. Its title:

Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks

The Guardian’s view in a nutshell: “Facebook hid “a small percentage” of emotional words from peoples’ news feeds, without their knowledge, to test what effect that had on the statuses or “likes” that they then posted or reacted to”.

Shrimsley comments that it is reasonable to ponder on Facebook’s power over those users who are unaware of being “subtly programmed”: “We can also all imagine the risks if the company were tempted to use its immense power subliminally to influence political debates. (Facebook has already tried this once, albeit fairly benignly, using “nudge” techniques to encourage people to vote in the last US election.)”.

A digital-privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is reported to have filed a complaint against Facebook Inc. with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, because Facebook failed to get permission to conduct the research, which altered the number of positive and negative comments in the news feeds of about 700,000 members, according to the complaint from. The group said the agency should impose sanctions, including requiring Facebook to disclose the software formulas that determine what users see in their feeds.

Robert Shrimsley is interested in speculation on how Facebook will use this research, but the writer is far more interested in why National Academy of Sciences is doing so much research on Facebook.

Papers include:

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