What weapons like the ones in the Elbit video clip can do is also being worked on in this country: in basic research at Swiss universities.
Marguerite Meyer and Ariane Luthi
The use of artificial intelligence in military applications is being developed in Swiss universities. However, these often keep a low profile about the use of their technologies. The EPFL in Lausanne provides a particularly striking example: neither the long-standing director of NCCR Robotics, Dario Floreano, nor the head of NTN Robotics, which is financed with public money, Aude Billard, want to comment. The leading researchers explain that they do not know to what extent technologies such as drone swarms are used militarily.
Military cooperation must be approved at EPFL and researchers must comply with the federal government’s so-called dual-use guidelines. But these are outdated for the latest technologies, says Marcello Ienca. He researches the ethics of intelligent systems in Lausanne. “In the 2020s, it is no longer possible to draw a clear line between civil and military technologies,” he says. “Export controls hardly work with AI because they only focus on developed applications and not on the algorithms required for them. You can pass on software that will then be used elsewhere for weapon systems.”
Dilemma between free research and abuse
“The same refusal criteria of goods control legislation apply to software as to goods,” writes the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs Seco. This applies to dual-use goods that are used for both civil and military purposes. AI is not explicitly mentioned; Basic research is generally excluded from this. Research in Switzerland follows the open science principle, results should be available to the public. This is a dilemma. “It is impossible to predict which applications will be based on these findings in the future,” writes the Swiss National Science Foundation, which supports a great deal of research.
“Lethal autonomous weapons push the dilemma between free research and possible misuse to the extreme, because it’s a matter of life and death,” explains Ienca. “There is a consensus among ethicists that we should not build machines that make autonomous decisions. I don’t think anyone in Switzerland would intentionally work on such systems.” But: “Even research with the best intentions can be misused by third parties for warlike or criminal purposes.”
According to Ienca, researchers who receive money from military institutes would have to disclose this – and explain how they deal with conflicts of interest. The universities need safety training courses of the kind that have long been established in chemical and biological research.
So far no comprehensive measures
There are no nationwide measures in this country. The University of Zurich has an awareness plan for researchers, but no mandatory training. EPFL has compulsory ethics courses for new students – for existing teams they are optional. A lot depends on the individual professors.
The armaments company Elbit Systems has two branches in Switzerland. The new reconnaissance drone in Switzerland, the ADS15, comes from the house. The Israeli company emphasizes how high the technical level and how attractive the local research centers are.
The SNSF also supports research cooperation between the two countries. “Research should be designed in such a way that it cannot be misused,” he writes. In individual cases, the SNSF reacts on its own initiative. But “the responsibility lies primarily with the researchers and their research institutions”. There is currently no standardized self-assessment for researchers on such risks. The Confederation also promotes the commercial application of research – via Innosuisse. The public innovation agency sensitizes its applicants, but compliance with the legal regulations is up to the companies: “Innosuisse cannot take any responsibility for this.”
Free research needs a clear framework
There are guidelines from the federal government, but there are no obligations. “The universities and their researchers are responsible for scientific integrity,” writes the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation SERI. “This is handled very differently.”
In order for research to be free, it needs a framework that is as clear as possible. At the moment it seems that politicians don’t feel responsible, but shift the responsibility – to individual professors and universities who actually want to do basic research for a good use.
It’s a Swiss strategy: turn a blind eye, hope for the best and then publicly regret when armies from other countries use weapons.