Uncle Sam Wants…Who?

Imagine meeting the Terminator on the battlefield. You might try and run–that is, if it didn’t kill you while you were pissing yourself.

What about an army of Terminators?

A common image in science fiction: massive armies of identical robots cutting down people and/or each other down with shiny silver weaponry. Like the legions of original cylons, and their progeny, the centurions. And like the skin-job versions, minus the angst and drama.

We know robots have begun replacing human prison guards, and that robots perform valuable functions such as information gathering and bomb diffusion. But what about clone wars? Or drone wars? Are robots ready to be soldiers?

While the U.S. Department of Defense has discontinued a program to develop enough robots to comprise a full third of U.S. fighting strength over the next twenty years, significant strides have been made in the development of ground and air military robots.

The stealth aircraft allegedly captured in Iran earlier this month is one of these robots. Such a drone can gather visual, electronic, and communication information, as well as detect radioactive isotopes and chemicals that might suggest nuclear development.

With funding from DARPA, Boston Dynamics has been working on a robot called the Alphadog, a stocky, four-legged robot that looks like a cross between a crab and a headless horse. Over the course of a day, this robot can cover roughly 20 miles with 400 pounds of supplies on its back.

See the Alphadog.

While the Alphadog can navigate logs and rocks and even stay on its feet when pushed by two people, making it effective in combat support situations, quadruped robots are a far cry from robot soldiers.

The biggest challenge remains creating a robot nimble enough to fight on the ground. Even successfully bipedal robots, like Asimo, still lack the fluidity, balance, and speed of a human. Rather, they tend to walk around carefully and awkwardly, as though stepping on a bed of nails or trying not to take a crap on the floor.

Armed Robotic Vehicles are one step closer to robot solders–they not only carry surveillance equipment, but also weapons. Although they currently look more like tanks than robots, they communicate with humans, especially regarding any observed movement or emergency, and receive scenario-dependent instructions.

Scientists expect these robots to become game changers. Some say they already have, and cite the Iraq War as a perfect example of how warfare will never be the same.

“Mankind’s 5000-year-old monopoly on the fighting of war is breaking down in our very lifetime,” says P.W. Singer during his TED talk on the role of robots in war.

While robots can respond to human direction and instruction in combat scenarios, some scientists are skeptical that robot soldiers or armies could act independent of human thought, direction, or consultation. Too many situations that require quick and careful decision making arise in battle. Right now, robots can’t decide military strategy, change their minds on the fly, or temper military decisions with compassion.

Or so we think, and will continue thinking until they prove that they’re better at fighting than we are (see: cylons).

Which brings us back to sentience, as so many science and technology discussions do.

And back we go to Kurzweil, and to his prediction that artificial intelligence will pass the Turing Test before 2030, and that by 2045, we’ll be completely cognitively outmatched by machines.

In which case, you can forget about camouflage.

So until then, let’s play nice. For starters, let’s not enslave our robots. Though maybe we should hide the weapons regardless.

And, this weekend, watch out for Santa. Santa has always transcended technology.

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One Response to Uncle Sam Wants…Who?

  1. jrenstro says:

    And our drones just got color vision: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16358851

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