Capitalism, War and Robotics

According to Ian Sample, Science editor of the Guardian, thousands of scientists who specialise in artificial intelligence (AI) have declared that they will not participate in the development or manufacture of robots that can identify and attack people without human oversight. He wrote that:

“Demis Hassabis at Google DeepMind and Elon Musk at the US rocket company SpaceX are among more than 2,400 signatories to the pledge which intends to deter military firms and nations from building lethal autonomous weapon systems, also known as Laws”.

And Sample goes on to say:

“Orchestrated by the Boston-based organisation, The Future of Life Institute, the pledge calls on governments to agree norms, laws and regulations that stigmatise and effectively outlaw the development of killer robots. In the absence of such measures today, the signatories pledge to “neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons.” More than 150 AI-related firms and organisations added their names to the pledge to be announced today at the International Joint Conference on AI in Stockholm”. (Thousands of leading AI researchers sign pledge against killer robots” (GUARDIAN, 18th July 2018).

This is reminiscent of previous peace pledges, all of which have failed.

At the establishment of the Labour Party, its leaders, like Keir Hardie, said that the Labour Party would get rid of armaments and war. Throughout the entire 20th century Labour governments not only signed armament contracts and supported the war industry by selling guns and planes to other countries, and signing arms contracts with dictators, mass murders and torturers, but also the labour Party, in and out of government, took part in two major world wars and dozens of smaller ones. In 2006, a century after the launch of that party, the Labour government was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Capitalism can never give permanent peace nor can scientists and others influence governments not to develop particular types of weaponry because no capitalist country, in intense competition with other capitalist countries over raw resources, trade routes and strategic spheres of influence, will ever give up their weapons or stop researching and developing new ways to kill and destroy. Permanent peace was supposed to be the dividend at the end of the cold war but wars have continued as well as the use of more and more destructive armaments.

The idealism professed by the signatories of the petition declaring their non-co-operation in designing killer robots is not new. For instance, after 1945 there was a similar principled declaration by nuclear scientists following the publication of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

A few days after the release of the manifesto, philanthropist Cyrus S. Eaton offered to sponsor a conference—called for in the manifesto—in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Eaton's birthplace. This was attended by many leading physicists who decided to persuade governments not to use nuclear weapons but only to work on peaceful applications of nuclear physics.

Nevertheless the main Cold war rivals continued their research into more destructive weapons of mass destruction with often dreadful consequences. According to the records the Russian authorities released in 1991, the Soviets set off 214 nuclear bombs in the open air between 1949 and 1962, when the United Nations banned atmospheric tests worldwide. The billions of radioactive particles released into the air exposed countless people to “extremely “mutagenic and carcinogenic materials, resulting genetic maladies and deformities

Peace conferences do not turn out as their instigators initially wished for. In 1899 the Tsar’s army was very large and found to be too expensive. The cost of the Russian army at the time equalled the combined cost of the armies of France and Germany. So the Tsar organised a peace conference at The Hague for countries to agree to cut the cost of armaments and to reduce the size of their respective armies. Twenty-eight countries attended the conference and passed a series of pious resolutions. Fifteen years later the First World War began, costing the capitalist class billions of pounds in lost profits and setting in motion a train of events which led to the end of the Tsar as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These events also led to the dictatorships in Russia under Lenin and in Germany under Hitler, and eventually another World War in 1939.

The Hague convention of 1909 had one success. The signatories to the convention voted to prevent the dropping of bombs from balloons, which was limited to five years. Of course, technology had moved on from 1909 and now the Germans had the Zeppelin airship to drop bombs. The main campaign against England started in January 1915 using airships. From then until the end of World War I the German armed forces mounted over 50 bombing raids on the United Kingdom. Twenty years after the end of that war, another war began, one in which the dropping of bombs was even more destructive culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands of civilians and maiming countless others.

Since 1899 there have been countless wars and the cost of military expenditure has gone on rising to a rate many times more than it was at the end of the 19th century. And the cost to the capitalist class for World War II alone was 1 trillion dollars with some 54 million deaths –dead workers who would have normally been used to generate surplus value (Wikipedia 2013). Such are the contradictions to be found in capitalism.

This does not deter starry-eyed idealists like Yoshua Bengio, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) pioneer at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms. He told the GUARDIAN that if the pledge was able to shame those companies and military organisations building autonomous weapons, public opinion would swing against them. He said:

This approach actually worked for land mines, thanks to international treaties and public shaming, even though major countries like the US did not sign the treaty banning landmines. American companies have stopped building landmines”.

The US might have signed the landmines treaty but other countries have not. The majority of the countries remaining outside the treaty keep stockpiles that collectively total around 50 million landmines. If not destroyed, those landmines remain ready to be used any time. The biggest stockpiles of antipersonnel landmines are held by: Russia, Pakistan, India, China, and the United States. In 2016, an average of 23 people around the world lost their life or limb to a landmine or another explosive remnant of war, every day

And the US might not be producing land mines but its armed forces have other particularly nasty weapons of mass destruction, like their nuclear arsenal which they are currently expanding.

Consequently, it is doubtful if the US will give up its research into the design of killer robots when other countries are also carrying out this research. The US military is one of the largest funders and adopters of AI technology. With advanced computer systems, robots can fly missions over hostile terrain, navigate on the ground, and patrol under seas. Remote-controlled drones, operated from computers in distant bases, have been responsible for many civilian deaths in Syria and other wars.

More sophisticated weapon systems are always in the pipeline. And the UK is not far behind in developing AI research with military capacity. In July 2018, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled a £2bn plan for a new RAF fighter, the Tempest, which will be able to fly without a pilot.

UK ministers have stated that Britain is not developing lethal autonomous weapons systems and that its forces will always have oversight and control of the weapons it deploys. But the campaigners warn that rapid advances in AI and other fields mean it is now feasible to build sophisticated weapons that can identify, track and fire on human targets without consent from a human controller.

Not long ago, this was thought to be the stuff of science fiction, a nightmare fantasy of the cinema of special effects. Now, robotic devices are routinely used by police for tracking individuals, with face recognition software able to identify protesters in mass demonstrations. For years banks and other commercial organisations have also made use of these new technologies, state departments can identify motor vehicles, the public using their credit cards are routinely tracked, while their movements are constantly monitored via CCTV cameras.

An American science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote of a future with robots. He suggested in his First Law of Robotics that all robots should be banned from harming humans. But capitalism has other priorities. Today, for every drone being used to deliver medicines to remote African villages or to monitor wildlife and earthquakes, there must be thousands being used to murder and maim in the killing fields of capitalism’s conflicts. This technology reinforces the modern mode of warfare as being typically asymmetric – a conflict where ancient rifles are used by some of the poorest in the planet against sophisticated and well-funded forces using the latest in remote-controlled lethal drones.

If scientists do not want to see the development of autonomous killer robots then they will have to acknowledge that you have first to get rid of the capitalist cause of warfare and join with socialists in working to replace the profit system with world socialism.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.