The world must act quickly to avert a future in which autonomous robots with artificial intelligence roam the battlefields killing humans, scientists and arms experts warned at an elite gathering in the Swiss Alps.
Rules must be agreed to prevent the development of such weapons, they said at a January 19 to 23 meeting of billionaires, scientists and political leaders in the snow-covered ski resort of Davos.
Angela Kane, the German UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs from 2012-2015, said the world had been slow to take pre-emptive measures to protect humanity from the lethal technology.
"It may be too late," she told a debate in Davos.
"There are many countries and many representatives in the international community that really do not understand what is involved. This development is something that is limited to a certain number of advanced countries," Kane said.
The deployment of autonomous weapons would represent a dangerous new era in warfare, scientists said.
"We are not talking about drones, where a human pilot is controlling the drone," said Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at University of California, Berkeley.
"We are talking about autonomous weapons, which means that there is no one behind it. AI: artificial intelligence weapons," he told a forum in Davos. "Very precisely, weapons that can locate and attack targets without human intervention."
Russell said he did not foresee a day in which robots fight the wars for humans and at the end of the day one side says: "OK you won, so you can have all our women."
But some 1,000 science and technology chiefs including British physicist Stephen Hawking, said in an open letter last July that the development of weapons with a degree of autonomous decision-making capacity could be feasible within years, not decades.
They called for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons that are beyond meaningful human control, warning that the world risked sliding into an artificial intelligence arms race and raising alarm over the risks of such weapons falling into the hands of violent extremists.