South Korean university to partner weapon manufacturer

A South Korean university has announced a partnership with the country's largest weapon manufacturer, Hanwha Systems. Many scientists across the world signed a boycott as response to the collaboration. Do similar deals have consequences for ethical agreements or academic freedom?

One of South Korea’s largest universities has announced a partnership with the country’s biggest weapon manufacturer, Hanwha Systems. In response of the agreement, 57 scientists from 29 countries have publicly called for a boycott of the university.

By Michael Kunst, April 12, 2018

The main goal of the cooperation, as stated by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), is to bolster national security by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The university opened a brand-new centre, called the ‘Research Centre for the Convergence of National Defence and Artificial Intelligence’, to be able to do research. According to some AI scientists, the goal of the research is to develop autonomous weapons, or so-called killer robots. Officials of the KAIST University reject the claim and say that improving existing defence systems is the main task of the research.



Huge concern
The KAIST decided to remove a specially designed webpage from the university website because of the rumours. The webpage mentioned the following about the cooperation: the university would together with Hanwha Systems work on “AI-based command and decision systems, composite navigation algorithms for mega-scale unmanned undersea vehicles, AI-based smart aircraft training systems, and AI-based smart object tracking and recognition technology.”

Toby Walsh, scientist at the University of South Wales (Sydney) and organizer of the boycott, immediately contacted his Korean colleagues when he heard about the collaboration but received no answer. He describes his main concern: “This is a very respected university partnering with a very ethically dubious partner that continues to violate international norms. There are plenty of great things you can do with AI that save lives, including in a military context, but to openly declare the goal is to develop autonomous weapons and have a partner like this, sparks huge concern.”

Michael Toby Walsh
Boycott organizer Toby Walsh © The Hankyoreh

Killer robots
The KAIST-Hanwha cooperation is not unique. Six years ago, scientists were surprised by the 83 million Pounds support to British elite universities, including Cambridge and Oxford, by military private sources such as BAE systems (one of world’s largest military contractors) and GKN (producer of commercial and military aircrafts).

Just a month before the rumours in South Korea, Australian universities turned out to have partnerships with defence industries as well. Just as in South Korea and England, it raised a major discussion about ethical concerns together with a lack of principles of academic freedom.



Using AI for military aspects has been widely questioned by CEOs and scientists worldwide. A petition was signed and presented to the UN to place a ban on any development of killer robots. Additionally, Hanwha Systems is Korea’s largest producer of cluster munitions while the Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed in 2010 by 38 states to prohibit such weapons. But, as you probably expected, South Korea did not sign the convention. It perfectly illustrates the ethical discussion about the relations between universities, military industries, and states.

Governments are usually not willing to respond to such collaborations. In many countries, military companies have close ties to politicians. Research done by the World Peace Foundation showed that military industries could be accused of fraud, bribery, sales to repressive regimes and poor environmental practises. Until now, similar collaborations have been subject of discussions. Maybe the academic boycott will provide serious changes.

Researchers to boycott South Korean university over AI weapons work – April 5, 2018 – Reuters

Arms Trade Firms Fund Elite Universities With £83m Over Three Years - But Does It Matter? – August 23, 2012 – The Huffington Post UK

Partnerships between universities and arms manufacturers raise thorny ethical questions – March 15, 2018 – The Conversation

Photo: Robotroplis


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