By Axel Bugge
LISBON (Reuters) - It would be "morally repugnant" if the world fails to ban autonomous machines from being able to kill people without human involvement, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday.
As the capability of artificial intelligence grows rapidly, there have been growing concerns about the possibility of killer robots, or other machines, being developed to fight wars.
Speaking to Reuters during the Web Summit technology conference which opened in Lisbon on Monday, Guterres praised the "enormous benefits" of new technology.
But he said it was crucial that the world works to avoid "autonomous machines with the power and the capacity to take human lives on their own without human control".
"This is the kind of thing that in my opinion is not only politically unacceptable, it is morally repugnant and I believe it should be banned by international law," he said.
New technology has made it possible to devise increasingly autonomous weapons systems, from drones to tanks. Robots are also being developed for potential use in wars.
Guterres, who is Portuguese, said there is currently no international consensus that "international humanitarian law applies to cyber use in conflict situations", making regulation of autonomous weapons used in conflicts more difficult.
"It is an area where I believe the international community needs to come together," he said, adding that the United Nations could work as a platform for cooperation of cyber space to create codes of conduct. "The worst thing we can be is naive and ignorant optimists."
To start this work, the U.N. created this year a high-level panel on digital cooperation. It is chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, the executive chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Still, Guterres said international divisions could make cooperation on cyber space more difficult, especially at a time when there is a new trend to question "multilateral mechanisms which are the only way to answer global challenges".
Guterres underlined that he believed the digital era and technology had brought big benefits, including new ways to fight disease and hunger.
"It is clear that technology is an ally," he said, pointing to areas such as alternative energy.
(Reporting by Axel Bugge, editing by Ed Osmond)