Tesla founder Elon Musk calls Artificial Intelligence “summoning the demon.”

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TRAVELING from Seattle to New Jersey as an invited speaker for the first Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare at Princeton University, memories kept surfacing of my previous visits to armed conflict zones in Mexico and Iraq. My family’s connection to Seattle spans four generations, but on Princeton’s snow covered walkways my mind kept returning to the dusty villages of the Sierra Madre, the narrow stone alleyways of Najaf, the grim concrete slums of East Baghdad.

When visiting Shiite, Sunni and Christian communities in occupied Iraq, my wife Meg (a Mennonite pastor) and I were struck by the strength of their ancient cultural traditions. Yet barely known to us then, the robotic warfare age had already arrived in Mesopotamia: ground robots prowling dirt roads and back streets, targeting drones circling in the desert air. Soon these were followed by pilotless U.S. Predator drones launching Hellfire missiles at impoverished Shiite rebel neighborhoods — communities that, to this day, are among the Middle East’s most adamant enemies of al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

At the national conference in February, 150 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh delegates grappled with the moral dilemmas and global realities of drone warfare, a radically new kind of high-tech killing now spreading across the planet, a 21st century arms race of increasingly numerous, deadly and autonomous robotic weapons.

The meticulous and moderate Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that U.S. drone strikes have killed more than 2,866 people in Pakistan and Yemen alone, including more than 481 unarmed civilians — of whom at least 176 were children. Only 2 percent were “high-value militants.” The Center for Naval Analyses’ studies show that drones in Afghanistan were 10 times more likely to kill civilians than were piloted warplanes.

When we think of dirt-poor tribal foot soldiers, or of civilian families and children, hit by Lockheed Martin Hellfire rockets from circling drones, it’s easy to forget that this means people ripped apart by jagged shrapnel or burned alive by the fearsome heat of exploding warheads. “Survivors” are often left with hideously crippling injuries and unmanageable pain. A “war against terrorism” waged with this terror from the skies is a self-contradictory moral disaster, and also a strategic dead end, producing embittered enemies faster than we can kill them.

A “war against terrorism” waged with this terror from the skies is a self-contradictory moral disaster.”

That’s why the interfaith leaders who gathered in Princeton are calling on the U.S. government to immediately end use of weaponized or lethal drones.

Drone strikes so far are just one tiny preview of global automated warfare in this brave new century — if we allow current, and rapidly accelerating, trends to continue. Already, drones conduct wide-ranging government surveillance inside the United States. Our tax dollars subsidize surveillance drones for corrupt, repressive governments in Mexico and Colombia — where, masked by the “drug war,” they facilitate repression of peasant unrest and of indigenous resistance to corporate strip-mining.

Prof. Denise Garcia warned last May that existing drones and ground robots are imminent “precursors to lethal autonomous robotics … nanobots to humanoid Terminator-style” machines. Hence, the Princeton conference urgently called for a global ban on autonomous and “semiautonomous” weapons — such as Boeing’s X-45 prototype. Experts, from physicist Stephen Hawking to world-renowned software architect Bill Joy, warn that if artificial intelligence technology continues to be developed, it may swiftly spin out of human control. Tesla founder Elon Musk calls artifical-intelligence development simply “summoning the demon.”

On this 50th anniversary of the Selma nonviolent resistance campaign, we should heed Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam: “When machines and computers, profits and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

“The choice is ours. And though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose at this crucial moment of human history.”