David J. Canepa represents District 5 on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

 

Last month, I picked up a copy of the Daily Journal and came across a headline on the opinion page that read: “Robots, drones and bots too — potentially the end of us?”

My heart literally skipped a beat because my office had been very quietly researching and working on a resolution for months related to this very topic. Some in my office had previously expressed hesitancy on pursuing the work because, well, people might think I’m crazy.

The Daily Journal opinion piece in the Nov. 13 edition was written by longtime columnist Sue Lempert, the former mayor of San Mateo.

 
December 12th. San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting in Redwood City, CA.

In it, she writes: “And, just as in those horrible noisy movies, robots may remove warfare from human control.”

Ding, ding, ding a bell rung in my head. This is my precise fear.

She continued: “Since the genie is already out of the bottle, it’s time for some regulations and a thoughtful analysis of where we (humans) are headed while we (humans) are still in control.”

Ding, ding, the bell rung again. This is my exact solution, specifically when it comes to fully autonomous weapons also known as “killer robots” like the kinds in those “Transformer” movies.

I doubt Lempert knew that the first meeting ever of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems convened at the United Nations in Geneva Nov. 13, the day her opinion piece was published.

The CCW is comprised of 125 nations and banned blinding lasers in 1995, an example of a weapon being preemptively banned before it was acquired or used.

The meeting last month in Geneva was not intended to negotiate a new protocol to ban or regulate lethal autonomous weapons but rather to get the discussion started, according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

As of this writing, only 22 countries have endorsed the call to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons but the United States is not one of them, despite more than 3,400 artificial intelligence and robotics experts who signed an open letter in 2015 urging such a move. Nearly 19,000 other individuals, including Tesla founder Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also endorsed the letter.

Their concern is that rapid advances in artificial intelligence will enable robots within the next few years to make life or death decisions all on their own — without human interference.

Call me crazy but that’s downright scary.

So scary that I decided dialogue around this issue shouldn’t be limited to super scientists and diplomats. This is a conversation we should all be involved in because the future of humanity is clearly at risk.

So, my office drafted, with the help of County Counsel, a resolution calling on the United States Congress to adopt national laws and policies restricting the development and use of fully autonomous weapons and the United Nations to develop an international agreement restricting the development and use of such weapons.

Before deciding to place the resolution on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors’ agenda, my office conferred with University of California, Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell to see whether he supported this local action. I am pleased to say he strongly supports it.

Russell’s research area is artificial intelligence and he is the co-author of the 2015 open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons.

“I have studied the issues concerning autonomous weapons and have concluded that such weapons … could feasibly be developed and deployed in a short time-scale using currently available methods and technologies,” Russell wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. He warns that killer robots present a major threat to humanity because they will constitute scalable weapons of mass destruction.

Call me crazy but I’m hopeful the Board of Supervisors will approve the resolution at its meeting tomorrow.

As the father of a newborn, I don’t want to leave my son in a world where robots could decide on their own whether he lives or dies.