Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mr. Roboto PFC?

This article appearing in today's New York Times sort of gives a whole new meaning to the term "transformation" in the armed forces. Maybe this is why Rumsfeld has been so reluctant to increase the size of the military:

The robot soldier is coming.

The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military in less than a decade, hunting and killing enemies in combat. Robots are a crucial part of the Army's effort to rebuild itself as a 21st-century fighting force, and a $127 billion project called Future Combat Systems is the biggest military contract in American history....

"They don't get hungry," said Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command at the Pentagon. "They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
Leaving aside the highly controversial claim that these robots will do a better job than humans (in what capacity exactly?), it is worth noting that there are already robots performing certain military functions: "digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at weapons depots." Although they are not humanoid in structure, more like little remote controlled trucks, that could soon change. The plans are to increase their functionality and design beyond the rudimentary prototypes currently in action.

Robots in battle, as envisioned by their builders, may look and move like humans or hummingbirds, tractors or tanks, cockroaches or crickets. With the development of nanotechnology - the science of very small structures - they may become swarms of "smart dust." The Pentagon intends for robots to haul munitions, gather intelligence, search buildings or blow them up....

"It's more than just a dream now," Mr. Johnson said. "Today we have an infantry soldier" as the prototype of a military robot, he added. "We give him a set of instructions: if you find the enemy, this is what you do. We give the infantry soldier enough information to recognize the enemy when he's fired upon. He is autonomous, but he has to operate under certain controls. It's supervised autonomy. By 2015, we think we can do many infantry missions.
Bart Everett, technical director for robotics at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, says his company's mission is to produce "an android-like robot that can go out with a solider to do a lot of human-like tasks that soldiers are doing now."

This most recent foray into the technological "undiscovered country" raises a whole slew of ethical and practical questions that had previously been the sole domain of science fiction writers and theoretical philosophers. On the one hand, there are reasons to think that robot reinforced units could have beneficial effects for our soldiers in combat, saving lives and freeing up assets.

Pentagon officials and military contractors say the ultimate ideal of unmanned warfare is combat without casualties. Failing that, their goal is to give as many difficult, dull or dangerous missions as possible to the robots, conserving American minds and protecting American bodies in battle.
And then there are the other advantages for the policy makers and senior leadership who have to contend with logistical constraints beyond the limiting effects of mounting casualties, such as money.

Money, in fact, may matter more than morals. The Pentagon today owes its soldiers $653 billion in future retirement benefits that it cannot presently pay. Robots, unlike old soldiers, do not fade away. The median lifetime cost of a soldier is about $4 million today and growing, according to a Pentagon study. Robot soldiers could cost a tenth of that or less.
The thought springs to mind of a distant future in which nations wage war almost entirely through proxy robot armies, or at least one nation with a technological advantage doing so. But if war is made so easy in terms of the price we pay in blood and treasure, could that make war more acceptable to the American people? Is that necessarily a good thing?

Mr. Finkelstein of Robotic Technology, who has been in the military robotics field for 28 years. "If you could invade other countries bloodlessly, would this lead to a greater temptation to invade?"
These are important issues to be considering, but as usual, the technology is out ahead of the ethical debate. Then there are the practical concerns, such as robotic malfunctions and defects. I mean, haven't these guys seen the Terminator movies, The Matrix trilogy, I, Robot, Blade Runner, or any other of the host of Hollywood products that preach of the perils of empowering robots with such lethal capacity? Those stories don't end well, at least not until there is much death and destruction before the human hero saves the day.

What about other, potentially more pernicious technological blowback, like the "
gray goo" effect of out of control nanotechnological replicators? I mean, am I the only one that finds the thought of a "swarm of 'smart dust'" to be a little disconcerting? What if this dust spun out of the control of the manipulators and became a menace to civilians removed from the battle field? Maybe I'm being old fashioned here, but I think we might want to look before we jump. They're probably not listening to me, though. According to Mr. Johnson:

"The American military will have these kinds of robots. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when." [emphasis added]

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