In an open letter with hundreds of signatories, the experts argued that if any major military power pushes ahead with development of autonomous weapons, "a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow."
Some people have argued in favor of robots on the battlefield, saying their use could save lives. Such weapons are still years away.
But the scientists warned that, unlike nuclear weapons, once they are developed they will require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials — making it possible to mass-produce them.
"It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc.," the letter said.
The signatories included leading figures globally in academia and business studying artificial intelligence — the idea that computer systems could replicate tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as language translation or visual perception. They were joined by philosophers, historians, sociologists and geneticists.
Sean O hEigeartaigh, the executive director of Cambridge University's Center for the Study of Existential Risk, said that he is hoping for a discussion on whether autonomous weapons should fall into the same category as chemical weapons and blinding lasers — namely that they be shunned.
"It's imperative to hear the voices of the scientists," he said of the many who have devoted their lives to having such systems benefit humanity.