Every time a robotic firm such as Boston Dynamics announces a new robot or a break through in AI, the Skynet jokes are soon to follow. Whether the machines are somewhat cute or downright creepy, we all have a good laugh at the coming robopocalypse.

However, more than 50 academic researchers are not laughing at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) which is working with military contractor Hanwha Systems to allegedly create autonomous weapons. The artificial intelligence researchers hail from almost 30 different countries and are calling for a boycott against the South Korean university.

In an open letter to the president of KAIST, Sung-Chul Shin, the researchers express their concern over the university's collaboration with Hanwha Systems, South Korea's primary arms manufacturer.

"At a time when the United Nations is discussing how to contain the threat posed to international security by autonomous weapons, it is regrettable that a prestigious institution like KAIST looks to accelerate the arms race to develop such weapons. We therefore publicly declare that we will boycott all collaborations with any part of KAIST until such time as the President of KAIST provides assurances, which we have sought but not received, that the Center will not develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control. We will, for example, not visit KAIST, host visitors from KAIST, or contribute to any research project involving KAIST."

The signatories of the boycott letter fear that autonomous weapons remove moral and ethical restraints that would allow terrorists and despots to unleash atrocities on innocent populations. They describe the threat of such weapons as a "Pandora's box [that] will be hard to close if it is opened" and urge the university to abandon its work on harmful tech and focus on AI that benefits society.

Hanwha Systems is known to manufacture cluster munitions, an indiscriminate weapon that has been banned in 120 countries under an international treaty. Hanwha's ethical ambiguity in arms production is what prompted the researcher to vow to exclude KAIST from future collaboration.

According to The Guardian, university president Shin denies that KAIST is working on lethal weapons.

"I would like to reaffirm that KAIST does not have any intention to engage in development of lethal autonomous weapons systems and killer robots," said Shin. "As an academic institution, we value human rights and ethical standards to a very high degree. I reaffirm once again that KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control."

The United Nations will be convening in Geneva next week to discuss this very topic. Over 20 countries have already expressed the need for a complete ban on "killer robots."

Body Image via The Guardian