Relentless patrolling at the border. Night-long vigils, where smoking is the one recreation, but is prohibited because it could attract enemy fire. A tired private, bleary-eyed and cold, suddenly notices some movement across the border. He fires. A rabbit dies. His firing attracts the enemy, and the post gets wiped out.
In time to come, this kind of situation may not be common. The bots are here.
Pic: http://www.ghibliworld.com

Really, who has robot soldiers, may we ask?

Already, South Korea and Israel are deploying armed robot border guards and China, Singapore and the UK are among those making increasing use of military robots. The biggest player yet is the US: robots are integral to its $230bn future combat systems project, a massive plan to develop unmanned vehicles that can strike from the air, under the sea and on land.

According to The Guardian, the US is treading on dangerous ground by deploying robots that can identify enemies and attack them with missiles.

Congress has set a goal of having one-third of ground combat vehicles unmanned by 2015. Over 4,000 robots are serving in Iraq at present, others in Afghanistan. And now they are armed.

When a semi-autonomous MQ-1 Predator self-navigated above a car full of al-Qaida suspects in 2002, the decision to vaporise them with Hellfire missiles was made by pilots 7,000 miles away. Predators and the more deadly Reaper robot attack planes have flown many missions since then with inevitable civilian deaths….

Today’s robots are designed to be autonomous. In other words, they can identify the enemy and take the decision to eliminate them. Therefore, the fear of a Terminator type of creature is haunting experts in Artificial Intelligence. The robot, it is feared, can be tricked into making judgment errors and shoot innocent civilians. An emotive example is of a robot shooting down a little girl pointing at it with an ice cream cone, mistaking her to be a gun-pointing enemy.
The robot cannot, it is argued, be allowed to judge a target and destroy it, because it could mistake a school bus full of children as one full of soldiers and eliminate them.
In previous posts, I have talked about my interactions with Rick Satava, who has been at the forefront of futuristic medical research at DARPA. Robots are now trained in evacuating injured soldiers from the battlefront. An automatised vehicle runs up to the injured soldier, its door opens up and a bed rolls under him and pulls him into the vehicle. In the vehicle, the patient is identified, IV started, while his records come up on the computer at the base hospital, and his surgeon gets ready for him by the time he is wheeled in.
The main design of the future warfront technology seems to be aimed at eliminating the loss of human life. Robots, therefore, are going to play an increasingly large role to play in the coming days, whether The Guardian likes it or not. And, lest we forget, the political aim of a war is to suffer the least casualties, so robotic soldiers are a way for a country to reduce mortality.
(Recommended: for insights on robotics in medical science, read this post of mine.)

19 responses to “TERMINATE, PRIVATE ROBOT!

  1. So the age of terminators is upon us…. I do remember reading articles on Korean and Israeli robot plans. But didnt know US was going so fast with this. According to a report some weeks/months back, Indian army is planning to convert its soldiers into lethal terminators by 2020. This would require special training, but of course, they wont be converted into robot. They will be human terminators. Robotizing Indian army would mean massive unemployment, I think…

    Oemar, I dunno about Indian robots. Sounds like science fiction to me! LOL!! 🙂

  2. Robots have always fascinated me, but the idea of them becoming fighting machines is not something that I can feel good about.

    Nita, I can understand that! 😉

  3. that’s very interesting..!

    but I’ve always been telling these leaders to stop the bloodshed on battlefields and stick to their respective Scrabble boards. But, alas, who listens! 😦

    Priya, I listen! 🙂

  4. This is the next logical step from unmanned fighter and recon aircrafts.
    I wonder how far they will take this? Would it be ironic if the future wars were all fought by robots attacking enemy robots, not a single drop of human blood shed.
    To take this a step ahead, what if people decided that such wars was a waste of precious recourses, and so went virtual. They’d be no different from video games!

    Ah! Imagine a world were the next world war is a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)! ROFL!

    Semantic, why don’t you blog on your vision of a new www: a Wirtual World War!? 🙂
    Thanks for visiting. Keep coming!

  5. Although aimed at minimizing one’s own losses, I think the biggest side-effect of this is that it lets humans become more detached from the actual act of war and its emotional fallout (how many people did you kill? how many of those are civilians? did your soldiers witness young with their limbs torn apart?). That means lesser moral dilemmas and thus much easier to make more devastating decisions with a whole lot more collateral damage. (So semantic overload, ‘not a single drop of human blood shed” – just not a possibility. Once the robots fight it out, the winner will likely proceed to eliminate the humans who sent the loser robots 🙂 )

    But can you can win wars this way? You can definitely win battles. The real conflict that results in wars is a conflict of human interests – that must be dealt squarely somewhere. All this robot stuff will perhaps only minimize the lead time to that (and with maximum collateral damage).

    For example, US typically likes high-tech battles, with aerial assaults and minimal ground forces. This again minimizes their losses, but then also minimizes the emotional impact (to US) of the bombs and they have more collateral damage (which they don’t like to dwell on – but then which government would?). They were able to get-by with it in the first gulf war and Kosovo as no occupation was needed – not really sure they solved the problem fully (certainly put out the immediate fire). But this was not so in Iraq – battle won but not the war – as that meant you had to deal human-to-human. Hi-tech stuff is useless there.

    Arun, Very true perspectives! However, nations with consciences (in spite of whatever government policies do, the American public is very sensitive to moral issues) cannot expect to kill lazily and get away with it. The political price will be so high that they will be very careful before letting the gun-bots loose. That said, what you say is the main concern about the Pvt. Robot. Very good comment!

  6. But doc – the american public are now “under the influence” (pun intended!) f the drug that is patriotism/nationalism. Hence, they are really not as sharp as they think. Do the American people (including all of media) have a reasonably good idea about how many people know about the # of Iraqi civians who died during the american invasion? Every day, we were reminded constantly about how many US soldiers died – that count was on our faces just like Dow Jones or Nasdaq. Every news program covered it. Evey politician *even now* only talks about loss of lives on the US side. But how about count of # of civilians – atleast an estimate? Did the news programs cover it? If so, I didnt see it. Remember Gen. Tommy Franks? “We don’t do body counts!”. How is he then different from a robot? In fact, he is the “ideal soldier” as a soldier follows, does not think. So the guy sending him must at least know of the collateral damage – right? But nobody in the US raised a big issue for a statement like that – isnt this killing lazily and getting away with it? Isn’t this sort of reprehensible for a country who is supposedly saving a country’s citizen not to have metrics for this? Of course we are told “this is much smaller than what Saddam did”. But they don’t get – “Well atleast show us how. And besides it is @#$% irrelevant! Are you trying to say you are the lesser evil? Then say it!” 🙂

    (Sorry for the tangent here – but in many ways the American leaders AND the people are even more detached from war – geography and power helped there. I don’t even see democrats fully opposed to the war talk about this. They all play politics – which means the only thing that is acceptable to raise is loss of US lives)

    PS: I like the way you added your reply to my comment. I need to do that in my blog. Avoids “inflating” # of comments – I like it when there are 20 comments to my post – then I remind myself that 10 of those are mine 😉 !

    Arun, yeah… I get what you say.

  7. Semantic Overload,
    I fully agree. We can save ourselves all that metal, electronics and environmental damage and completely move all official wars to World of Warcraft.

  8. A little off topic but someone had mentioned that its a good idea to add the reply to the comment in the post. I think its looks really cool and doesn’t inflate the comments but I wonder if it will show up in ‘my comments’ ? The only way we wordpress users find out if there is a reply to one’s comment is by going to ‘my comments’ and that is why it becomes easy to track.

  9. Nita,
    As you can see, only separate comments come up in the comment box. But I did that to make more sense in my comments, considering that there were several substantive ones to deal with.

  10. Sir Rambodoc, very nice post indeed. I had read sometime back about one particular popular US army robot now being equipped with a machine gun and had thought about writing about it too…

    But Sir, we didn’t know you were so well-connected. I had read and commented on your previous post about DARPA’s Rick Satava, but nowhere had that post mentioned that you had actually interacted with him. So please to excuse, Sir, request you to retract, or apologize or claim you were quoted out of context or call us headless chickens, about the statement that “In previous posts, I have talked about my interactions with Rick Satava”.

    I was going to comment “All is fair in love and war (unless you’ve invaded a sovereign country unjustifiably in the first place)”, but when I read Arun’s comment, I stopped.

    I cannot say anything but Amen, to Arun’s words of wisdom. I’m completely with him on this.

    My best connections are outlined in the blogroll on the right.

  11. Mahendra,
    I had a small pastime I indulged in before blogging. I used to write ( for pop newspapers) tedious, voluminous and glabrous posts on health science related developments, and I took myself seriously.
    In that avatar, I have interacted with a few experts, and that is my claim to dame, I mean fame!
    Thank God I am now into blogging!

  12. Rambodoc, I guessed that writing and you are not strangers. at first I wondered what a doctor was doing – blogging! Now I know your secret. 🙂

    The best part of blogging is the absence of a copy desk and an editor!

  13. Prior to the American invasion of Iraq, I was debating the merits of it with someone who was all for it because Fox News Channel had told him to be all for it. So, I asked him, “Have you thought of all the people who will be injured, maimed and killed if we invade?”

    “Of course I have”, he said, “But our soldiers get paid to take those risks.”

    “Well”, I said, “I wasn’t thinking of just our soldiers, but also of all the Iraqi civilians who will die.”

    “Oh, they are just collateral damage”, he said, “It’s not like we try to kill civilians.”

    So his attitude was: The only deaths that count are the deaths of your own troops. Not even the lives of innocent civilians count.

    With attitudes like that, I can only wonder how easy it will be for politicians to order invasions that will directly or indirectly kill tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people, when the only “people” on our side to “die” are robots.

  14. Paul,
    Ultimately, in a war, a soldier only cares for his people, and not for the rest. I am wondering if that kind of focus is correct, necessary and inevitable, or it is inhuman. Of course, willfully killing any civilian is criminal. But is collateral damage acceptable? What do others think??

  15. I think those are difficult questions to have a black and white answer . One could say “If war is acceptable, then collateral damage must be too”. But that is sort of idealistic in the sense that it is as impractical as saying “War is never acceptable”.

    The perfect soldier: First the idea of perfectness here is IMO just a concoction due to the fear that a thinking guy’s judgment cannot be trusted. I am not saying it is without merit – but nevertheless the underlying reasons seem to be paranoia. Perhaps this reflects that wars are fought for reasons that may not understood and acceptable by the people carrying them out. Funny isn’t it? Perhaps hinting at an inherent flaw? In any case, this perfect soldier is indeed a robot.

    But per this image of a perfect soldier, the responsibility must then move to the boss. If the soldier is not responsible for thinking about moral implications of the act of war, then his commander must, and he must think of it as a “soldier would have in the battlefield”. The trouble is he may not do so and would simply look at it from his own shoes – far away and detached from the acts of war. Hence collateral damage usually is higher than it perhaps need be.

    I don’t know if that made sense.

  16. Sir Rambodoc,

    //Paul, ultimately, in a war, a soldier only cares for his people, and not for the rest.//
    I don’t think Paul was talking about a soldier. I think he was referring to an ordinary American and how he was influenced by the American media.

    //I am wondering if that kind of focus is correct, necessary and inevitable, or it is inhuman.//
    Do rethink about this and wonder about it. I will join you!

    //Of course, willfully killing any civilian is criminal. But is collateral damage acceptable? What do others think?//
    This is the first time I find you not expressing your own viewpoint but asking for others’ opinions!

    Your posts are changing its chameleon colors from the glamorous Greek visit posts to the glabrous ones! What’s happening?! 🙂

  17. Mahendra,
    You know I am a night rider.
    But why are you conferring knighthood on me?
    As to your last question, you are sometimes exposed to the Deep End of The Mind!

  18. Before I forget – about collateral damage – I abhor the term. It is a devious euphemism invented by some clever evil folks to distance the horror of wars from the public. It is a political gimmick that I encourage others not to fall for.

    Regarding the knighthood – it came naturally, I wasn’t aware. You see Sir, I did not respect my school teachers. But I tend to develop a certain respect for people who write scholarly works in reputed international scientific journals…

  19. this is awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    have u guys seen the movie la puta this reminds me of the robots they used

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