Robots have received a bad press ever since HAL 9000 convinced millions of people that artificial intelligence might have a mind of its own.

The on-board computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey went haywire and killed one of the spaceship pilots before the other human survivor disconnected the machine.

They’re going to help us. We’re at least the gods originally. 

Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder

That was in 1968. Subsequently, The Matrix series did little to allay human fears about rogue AI. Now 47 years after Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction film, scientists are scared stiff of reel life becoming real life.

More than 1000 leading researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in Buenos Aires this week signed a letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, also known colloquially as “killer robots”.

Their letter argued that the deployment of such autonomous weapons was feasible within years, and they would play a dangerous role in driving the next revolution in warfare.

Among the scientific jeremiahs were physicist Stephen Hawking, SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon​ Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Skype co-founder Jaan​ Tallinn​ and the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky.

They said deployment of such AI weaponry was feasible within years, and it would play a dangerous role in driving the next revolution in warfare.

“Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention,” they wrote.

“Artificial Intelligence technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is – practically if not legally – feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

“Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the end point of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.”

Of course, it is not the first time eminent scientists have got together to warn government about arms and the man.

Perhaps the most famous precedent was the Einstein–Szilárd letter.

Written to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the eve of the Second World War, the scientists that time around were advocating a global arms race.

The famous German-born physicist Albert Einstein and the Hungarian physicist, Leó Szilárd​, both of whom had fled Europe for the US, sent their letter on August 2, 1939, alerting the American leader of the possibility of Germany developing atomic bombs. Before any one could say brighter than 1000 suns, Roosevelt gave the nod for what became the Manhattan Project and the eventual destruction of Hiroshima (coincidently 70 years ago on Thursday).

It was only later that some scientists realised what they had unleashed: US physicist Robert Oppenheimer​, often called the “father of the atomic bomb”, saw the first explosion in the New Mexico desert and said it reminded him of the words of the Hindu epic poem the Bhagavad​ Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He went on to work for nuclear arms control and be hounded by the FBI.

Scientists meeting in Buenos Aires also urged the United Nations to support a ban on “killer robots”.

The UN previously answered the call to control new-fangled weapons when it  introduced a protocol in 1998 banning the use of laser guns that had a specific purpose of blinding troops.

Sydney-based Toby Walsh, group leader at NICTA’s​ Research Centre of Excellence, was one of the Buenos Aires signatories.

“Artificial intelligence is a technology that can be used to help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today: inequality and poverty; the rising cost of healthcare; the impact of global warming, and many others. But it can also be used to inflict unnecessary harm. And now is the right time to get in place a ban before this next arms race begins,” he said.

Musk, Hawking and Wozniak recently warned about the dangers that AI posed.

But Wozniak seemed quite predisposed to a future controlled by AI at a conference in Texas in June, saying it would make humans like the “family pet and taken care of all the time”.

“They’re going to be smarter than us and if they’re smarter than us then they’ll realise they need us.

“It will be hundreds of years down the stream before they’d even have the ability. They’ll be so smart by then that they’ll know they have to keep nature, and humans are part of nature. So I got over my fear that we’d be replaced by computers. They’re going to help us. We’re at least the gods originally.”