Pentagon Urged to Just Say No to AI-Powered Killer Robots

The watchdog group Public Citizen on Tuesday led a letter urging Pentagon leaders “to clarify that the Replicator Initiative will not involve the development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems,” also known as “killer robots.”

Last September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks “asserted that the development of all-domain, attributable autonomy systems (ADA2) is an essential way for the Pentagon to maintain its comparative cutting-edge and keep up with the technological advancements of other states,” notes the letter, which was addressed to her and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“However, those comments failed to specify whether or not supporting autonomous weapons systems is one of the key focuses of this initiative,” the letter stresses. “When addressing whether or not ‘ADA2 means weapons systems,’ Secretary Hicks stated: ‘That’s a serious question to be sure. They are not synonymous. There are many applications for ADA2 systems beyond delivering weapons effects.'”

“Autonomous weapons are inherently dehumanizing and unethical, no matter whether a human is ‘ultimately’ responsible for the use of force or not.”

Public Citizen and the 13 other organizations argued that “this is no place for strategic ambiguity. Autonomous weapons are inherently dehumanizing and unethical, no matter whether a human is ‘ultimately’ responsible for the use of force or not.”

Deploying lethal weapons that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) “in battlefield conditions necessarily means inserting them into novel conditions for which they have not been programmed, an invitation for disastrous outcomes,” the groups warned. “‘Swarms’ of the sort envisioned by Replicator pose even heightened risks, because of the unpredictability of how autonomous systems will function in a network. And the mere ambiguity of the U.S. position on autonomous weapons risks spurring a catastrophic arms race.”

“We believe the Department of Defense should declare its opposition to the development and deployment of autonomous weapons,” the coalition concluded. “However, even if you are not prepared to make that declaration, we strongly urge you to clarify that the Replicator Initiative will not employ autonomous weapons.”

In addition to Public Citizen, the coalition included the American Friends Service Committee, Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, Backbone Campaign, Demand Progress Education Fund, Fight for the Future, Future of Life, National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies,, United Church of Christ, the Value Alliance, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom U.S., Win Without War, and World Beyond War.

The letter comes on the heels of Public Citizen releasing a report about the rise of killer robots, AI Joe: The Dangers of Artificial Intelligence and the Military.

The February report addresses the Pentagon’s AI policy, the dangers of killer robots, the need to ensure decisions about nuclear weapons aren’t made by automated systems, how artificial intelligence can increase not diminish the use of violence, risks of using deepfakes on the battlefield, and how AI startups are seeking government contracts.

The publication concludes with recommendations that Public Citizen president Robert Weissman echoed in a statement Tuesday.

“The United States should state plainly that it will not create or deploy killer robots and should work to advance global treaty negotiations to ban such weapons,” Weissman said. “At minimum, the United States should commit that the Replicator Initiative will not involve the use of autonomous weapons.”

“Ambiguity about the Replicator program essentially ensures a catastrophic arms race over autonomous weapons,” he added. “That’s a race in which all of humanity is the loser.”

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Jessica Corbett