Ahead of a major United Nations meeting to address the growing issues surrounding lethal autonomous weapons, a team of leading AI and robotics researchers has called for a boycott of a South Korean university that recently announced the opening of an AI weapons lab.

Back in February, South Korea's leading government-run university, KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), announced the opening of a new facility called the Research Center for the Convergence of National Defense and Artificial Intelligence. The announcement revealed the new research facility would investigate a variety of AI-based military systems, including autonomous undersea vehicles and "AI-based command and decision systems."

The announcement was received with great concern by many in the artificial intelligence research community and a recently revealed open letter, signed by over 50 researchers from around the globe, is calling for a boycott of all academic collaborations with KAIST over the matter.

"At a time when the United Nations is discussing how to contain the threat posed to international security by autonomous weapons, it is regrettable that a prestigious institution like KAIST looks to accelerate the arms race to develop such weapons," the letter states.

"We therefore publicly declare that we will boycott all collaborations with any part of KAIST until such time as the President of KAIST provides assurances, which we have sought but not received, that the Center will not develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control. We will, for example, not visit KAIST, host visitors from KAIST, or contribute to any research project involving KAIST."

The boycott has been organized by Toby Walsh, an artificial intelligence researcher from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who has been prominent in calling for regulations into the development of autonomous weapons. Walsh previously masterminded major open letters in 2015 and 2017 calling for the banning of weaponized artificial intelligence.

"Back in 2015, we warned of an arms race in autonomous weapons," says Walsh. "That arms race has begun. We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons under development today by many nations including the US, China, Russia and the UK."

KAIST president Sung-Chul Shin has responded to the threatened academic boycott by issuing a statement denying the institution is working on lethal autonomous weapons systems or "killer robots."

"The centre aims to develop algorithms on efficient logistical systems, unmanned navigation [and an] aviation training system," Shin says in the statement. "KAIST will be responsible for educating the researchers and providing consultation. As an academic institution, we value human rights and ethical standards to a very high degree. KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity, including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control."

Curiously, the KAIST website has removed the original announcement, published in late February, describing the opening of the new research centre.

The phrase "meaningful human control" seems to be most important in these ongoing regulatory discussions. On April 9, the United Nations Group of Government Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems will reconvene for the first of two meetings scheduled this year to investigate policy outcomes related to AI weapons. The provisional agenda of these meetings suggests determining what "meaningful human control" actually means will be fundamental to any future legal provisions.

While 22 nations have already called for an outright, pre-emptive ban on the development of autonomous weapons, several larger military states seem to be delaying any action. Russia, having already revealed its progress towards developing autonomous weaponry, has issued an outright refusal to support any "preventative ban" on the issue, and the United States is developing its own autonomous weapons programs. Without the support of these major military powers it is hard to see any future United Nation regulation being anything but symbolic.

Update April 9, 2018: The boycott of KAIST by more 50 AI and robotics researchers has ended.
"I was very pleased that the president of KAIST has agreed not to develop lethal autonomous weapons, and to follow international norms by ensuring meaningful human control of any AI-based weapon that will be developed," said Toby Walsh, who initiated the action. "I applaud KAIST for doing the right thing, and I'll be happy to work with KAIST in the future.
"It goes to show the power of the scientific community when we choose to speak out – our action was an overnight success. We initially sought assurances in private from the university more than month ago about the goals of their new lab. But the day after we announced the boycott, KAIST gave assurances very publicly and very clearly.
"There are plenty of good applications for AI, even in a military setting. No one, for instance, should risk a life or limb clearing a minefield – this is a perfect job for a robot. But we should not, however, hand over the decision of who lives or who dies to a machine – this crosses an ethical red-line and will result in new weapons of mass destruction."