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Terminator’s Grandpappy: Robot Soldiers are Here

The New York Times [free registration required] is running a piece on the SWORDS robot, an armed robot that is set to deploy in Iraq. Now, I’ll admit that the images of a gun-wielding, remote-operated robot do light up my imagination. The utopian sci-fi nerd in me can’t help but extrapolate to a time when wars are all fought via robot and human life is preservered. Of course, the dystopian sci-fi nerd in me can’t think of anything other than the bleak future of the Terminator movies, in which intelligent robots decide they’re done taking orders from humans.

Sci-fi visions (utopian or otherwise) aside. The idea of armed robots strikes me as very wrong. Many will argue that robotic soldiers reduce bloodshed and keep flesh-and-blood soldiers out of harm’s way. However, the whole idea of an armed robot is to kill. While SWORDS operators teleoperate their mobile weapons platforms from a safe distance, the human beings on the business end of the robot are still bleeding and dying. An armed robot does nothing to halt violence and war.

From a purely tactical perspective, it seems like weaponized infantry robots are highly susceptible to hacking or other interference. No matter how good the encryption is, a signal is still being sent from the operator to the robot and back. A smart enemy could surely interfere with that loop, rendering the robot useless, or worse, turning it on its owners.

On top of all that, the military continues to push for artificial intelligence that will take the control of the robot out of human hands. Is this a good idea? I work closely with robotics projects at Carnegie Mellon University, which is one of the universities working on the millitary’s Future Combat Systems project, and I have to say that I have yet to see an autonomous system that I would trust. As AI becomes more and more advanced and more and more embodied, machine revolt seems more and more likely. James Cameron’s Terminator becomes less and less of a sci-fi adventure and more of a cautionary tale.

Just in case you’re reading this after the NYTimes article has been archived, here are some links to other information:

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