More than 100 tech leaders, including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Alphabet’s Mustafa Suleyman, signed an open letter urging the United Nations to address the threat of autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

The letter, published Sunday with signatures from 116 leaders, praised the work of the UN in establishing a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on “Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems,” and offered support and technical expertise. However, the letter also urged the GGE to “work hard at finding means to prevent an arms race in these weapons, to protect civilians from their misuse, and to avoid the destabilizing effects of these technologies.”

The first meeting of the GGE was due to take place on the day of the letter’s publication, but it was canceled. As such, the letter pushes for the UN to double down in its efforts against autonomous weapons, which could be the “third revolution in warfare,” the tech leaders wrote.

SEE: Defending against cyberwar: How the cybersecurity elite are working to prevent a digital apocalypse (free PDF)

While autonomous systems continue to grow in use across industries like transportation, the risk is that they could behave inappropriately or be hacked. When you add weapons to the mix, it makes things even more dangerous.

“Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” the letter said. “These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”

And while most autonomous systems aren’t necessarily production-ready, that doesn’t mean that experts have a lot of time to figure out a game plan. The letter continued: “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

The letter came just a few days after US defense secretary James Mattis, in a visit to Silicon Valley, called for AI to be more heavily utilized in the Pentagon. That use of AI capabilities in warfare, however, could also lead to killer robots being hijacked by the enemy, experts warned.

A similar letter was signed by Musk and other high-profile tech leaders in 2015, calling for a ban on the development of such weapons. Before that, concern was raised over the SGR-1, an autonomous machine gun that was developed by Samsung.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Some 116 tech leaders signed an open letter urging the UN to double its efforts in combatting lethal autonomous weapons on Sunday.
  2. The letter claims that the weapons can cause war at a greater scale, and can be hacked to be operated by enemies.
  3. A similar letter called for a ban on the development of such weapons back in 2015, not very long after Samsung developed its autonomous sentry gun, the SGR-1.