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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Today's great powers are sliding toward a new arms race, this time on the battleground of lethal computer code, but experts say that rushing to develop autonomous weapons — which can be erratic and easily stolen — will make violent conflict more likely and yield no winners.

What's happening: The countries leading in artificial intelligence research (U.S., China, Russia, U.K., France, Israel and South Korea) are all developing weapons that hand-off increasing portions of the killing process to computers.

In a new report coming out tomorrow and reported first by Axios, PAX, a Dutch nonprofit, describes "clear signs of the start of an AI arms race."

  • "Automated turrets" guard South Korea's border, choosing targets autonomously but requiring a human go-ahead before they fire, says PAX, which lobbies companies not to make lethal AI.
  • China sells stealth drones advertised to be capable of autonomous airstrikes.
  • Israel uses autonomous drones to patrol its border with Gaza.

Unlike nuclear weapons, which can be guarded in bunkers and require deep expertise to manufacture, autonomous weapons are not easily locked away. "Once you develop them, these weapons will proliferate widely," Daan Kayser, the PAX report's lead author, tells Axios. "They'll also be used against you."

The reflex to treat AI as an arms race is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, Paul Scharre, an autonomous weapons expert at the Center for a New American Security, warns in Foreign Affairs. In a security dilemma that resembles the Cold War, as countries build up their defenses, the world becomes more dangerous.

  • "There are strong institutional incentives within national security bureaucracies to stay ahead of others," Scharre tells Axios. But chasing breakneck speed can push aside essential research into AI safety and cybersecurity.
  • That could result in AI weapons that aren't thoroughly tested, make inexplicable decisions in the heat of the moment, or interact in unforeseen ways with other systems. "Some of the most powerful [AI] methods are quite alien to human intelligence," Scharre said.

But, but, but: The phrase "arms race" conjures images of the Cuban Missile Crisis, while a bigger conflict is likely to play out on the economic battlefield, says Amy Webb, an NYU professor and founder of the Future Today Institute.

  • "When we talk about an arms race, we tend to think about the wars that have already been fought," Webb tells Axios. "We're never talking about the wars of the future."
  • Autonomous weapons are one small slice of next-generation conflict, she says. The greater threat: a Chinese economy made hyper-efficient by AI and backed by allied emerging economies that could "cripple" U.S. markets.

What's next: The U.S., unlike most countries, has a clear-cut policy against using weapons that target and kill people without any human input.

  • But it has blocked attempts at the United Nations to establish a global ban on fully automated weapons and continues to develop increasingly autonomous fighting machines that still ask for a soldier's go-ahead before shooting.
  • Later this year, a group of outside advisers called the Defense Innovation Board will recommend a set of ethical "AI principles" to the Pentagon.

Go deeper

Updated 25 mins ago - Health

2 federal judges temporarily block Biden vaccine mandates

President Biden delivers remarks on the Omicron COVID-19 variant at the White House on Nov. 29. Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

The Biden administration was temporarily blocked from enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for millions of workers by federal judges in two states on Tuesday.

The big picture: The orders, by federal judges in Kentucky and Louisiana, come one day after a federal judge in Missouri halted the mandate, which has a Jan. 4 deadline, in 10 states.

56 mins ago - World

Honduras elects first female president

Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro, of the Libertad y Refundacion (Libre) Party, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Sunday. Photo: Inti Ocon/Getty Images

Former Honduras first lady Xiomara Castro is set to become the country's first female president president, after the ruling party conceded defeat in the country's elections on Tuesday night, per AP.

Why it matters: The democratic socialist and her Libre Party have broken a 12-year run for the conservative National Party, which U.S. prosecutors alleged fostered a "narco-state," note Axios' Latinos' Marina E. Franco and Russell Contreras.

Food delivery "ghost kitchens" face major obstacles

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The growing popularity of food delivery has given rise to startups that open "ghost kitchens" — kitchens in warehouses or trailers that prepare food solely for delivery and have no option to dine in.

  • But they can come with a whole host of problems.

The big picture: The concept of "ghost kitchens" has been dubbed the next big thing in the future of services, with high profile backers like Uber founder Travis Kalanick. But these kitchens can be hard to run or unsafe.