Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics companies have collectively urged the United Nations (UN ) to impose a ban on lethal robot weapons.

An open letter to the UN, which was signed by 116 founders of robotics and AI companies from 26 countries, was released at International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI 2017) being held in Melbourne, Australia.

The signatories include SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and Mustafa Suleyman, who is the head of Applied AI at Google DeepMind.

In the letter, the technology experts have requested the UN ban the use of artificial intelligence in lethal autonomous weapons as it may lead to a very dangerous escalation.

The letter states: “As companies building the technologies in artificial intelligence and robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons, we feel especially responsible in raising this alarm.

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought on a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.

"Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare."

“These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act.

"Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.”

In December 2016, 123 member nations of the UN’s Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons agreed to begin formal discussions on autonomous weapons.

Of these, 19 have already called for an outright ban, according to a statement posted on the University of New South Wales website.

Image: Toby Walsh with UNSW’s Baxter Collaborative Robot, made by Rethink Robotics (a US company founded by Australian Rodney Brooks). Photo: courtesy of Grant Turner / UNSW.