Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and many of the top minds in robotics have a message for the world's military powers: Don't mix artificial intelligence with weapons.

In an open letter signed by more than 1,000 AI and robotics experts--plus such entrepreneurs as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn--researchers state that the development of autonomous weapons technology would almost certainly lead to a global arms race. Such a race would likely result in terrorists and dictators acquiring the technology for things like assassinations and widespread murder, the authors argue. Researchers presented the letter at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence on Monday in Buenos Aires. 

Autonomous weapons refer only to machines that "select and engage targets without human intervention." It excludes such machines as remotely piloted drones, which require humans to fire ammunition and drop bombs. The authors of the letter describe autonomous weapons as "the third revolution in warfare," following the advent of gunpowder and nuclear weapons.

Arguments in favor of autonomous weapons typically focus on the benefit of reducing human casualties, while arguments against the technology tend to cite a lower threshold for waging war. "The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting," the letter says. "If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable."

One of the secondary risks of an autonomous weapons arms race is a backlash against all AI technology, even the kind that benefits society, the authors state.

"[W]e believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so," the letter says. "Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban of offensive weapons beyond meaningful human control."