Military use of research pushback in Japan, South Korea

A number of Japanese universities and research institutions have set up special screening procedures to ensure that research conducted by their scientists is not linked to military use, after the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) called on research organisations to come up with evaluation procedures last year.

A survey conducted by the council released on 4 April showed around 46 out of 183 universities and research organisations surveyed have now set up screening systems to evaluate the technical and ethical appropriateness of research programmes that could be linked to military purposes. The council – which includes among its members big industry research groups, including in aeronautics and engineering – last year rejected such research.

While some say it is a sluggish response from universities and research establishments, with such a large number not putting in procedures, others argue there is a fine line between most research being used for military or civilian purposes, which makes it almost impossible to develop policies that can stringently create a protection wall.

"Considering the great deal of work required to create an evaluation system, we view these results positively," said Kyoto University President and SCJ President Juichi Yamagiwa at the press conference where the survey results were presented.

Thirty entities reported to the SCJ that they allow researchers to apply for Ministry of Defense research grants. Some academics point out that universities’ specific statements rejecting military research go against academic independence and individual academic responsibility.

For example, the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence drew up its own ethical guidelines in 2017, but they do not include the pros and cons of military research, even though the legitimacy of artificial intelligence-controlled weapons is controversial globally.

While in Japan the concern is linked to increased government funding, including from the Ministry of Defense, for military-related research, the stakes and international repercussions for such links have risen after more than 50 of the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers last week threatened to boycott one of South Korea’s top research universities because of links to a munitions manufacturer to help develop artificial intelligence-directed weapons.

KAIST boycott

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) announced in February that it was launching a joint research centre with Korean defence company, Hanwha Systems, to develop weapons that would “search for and eliminate targets without human control”.

The boycott announced in an open letter organised by Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence (AI) at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that AI experts at major institutions in 30 countries, including the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the University of California, Berkeley in the United States, would 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 centre will not develop autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control”.

The signatories urged KAIST to stop any work on lethal autonomous weapons and to refrain from AI uses that would harm human lives.

KAIST President Shin Sung-chul responded with a statement that the university was “significantly aware” of ethical concerns regarding artificial intelligence, adding that “KAIST will not conduct any research activities counter to human dignity including autonomous weapons lacking meaningful human control”.

KAIST said in a statement released on 5 April, however, that it will continue cooperation with Hanwha’s defence business unit and will not stop ongoing research on defence technologies.

Japanese academics divided

Although the KAIST boycott call was specifically related to automated weapons, just as the United Nations is beginning talks on a possible ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems in Geneva on 9 April, Japan’s academics are still divided over the policy announced last year by the Japanese government to integrate military and civilian research to boost national security.

The Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency of the Ministry of Defense started a research funding programme in 2015 called National Security Technology Research Promotion, which provides grants for research that could be applied to defence equipment. The SCJ is particularly critical of this, declaring that it amounts to an alarming level of government intervention in academic research.

Major academic science organisations have still to work out guidelines to assess military use of research, as recommended by the SCJ last year. The Japan Federation of Engineering Societies, whose membership includes the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers and 95 other academic bodies, said last year the federation would not respond to the SCJ statement.

The Astronomical Society of Japan supports the new government fund with the majority of young researchers expressing acceptance in a recent survey, as long as the research falls “within the bounds of Japan’s exclusively defence-oriented policy”.

Some research labs fear that a ‘no military use’ policy will starve them of funds and could mean that young researchers would not apply for jobs.

In a statement on 29 March, Yamagiwa, in his capacity as Kyoto University president, is quoted as saying, “our researchers aim to contribute to social order and human peace … we will not carry out military research that leads to threatening these aims”.

Nevertheless, even at Kyoto University, Yamagiwa has set up a university standing committee to discuss whether individual cases are appropriate.

Kyoto University is Japan’s second-top national university with a globally leading science and medical research base and boasts nine Nobel laureates.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article