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When robots turn soldiers

May 28, 2009 11:06 IST
If you still believe that real-world robots are benign, used as pets or to handle micro-surgeries and help human beings with domestic tasks like cleaning and maintenance or handle dangerous industrial tasks, you may want to think again.

Films like Star Wars, Robocop or Terminator as made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger (the film which is in its fourth edition with Terminator Salvation has just been released), or even Bicentennial Man where an android endeavours to become human as he gradually acquires emotions (beautifully depicted by Robin Williams) have already predicted a scenario wherein robots could evolve into something beyond our imagination.

The Honda Motor Company, for instance, has been working on a robot called ASIMO for the past 20 years (it still needs improvements) and has now put ASIMO to work as a receptionist in its office in Tokyo. The robot spends its time greeting guests and leading them around the facilities. And if British artificial intelligence researcher David Levys theory proves true, by 2050, robots and humans will be able to marry legally in the US to begin with.

These examples may bring a smile to your face. But what about robots that can carry and fire weapons like shotguns, pepper spray, grenade launchers, or even Hellfire missiles?

The U S military's robot programme, christened Future Combat Systems (FCS), has budgeted a spend of almost $300 billion over the next 20 years, to do precisely this.

The robots include Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) designed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions; Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) that can enter hazardous areas and gather information without risking the lives of soldiers; multifunctional Utility/Logistics and Equipment (MULE) vehicles designed to provide combat support in conflict situations; and Armed Robotic Vehicles (ARV) that weigh 9.3 tonnes and can either carry powerful weapons platforms or sophisticated surveillance equipment.

Due to budget cuts, many of the more expensive initiatives included in FCS could be postponed indefinitely (the MULE and ARV vehicles fall into this category).

The MULE ARV-A-L robot can fire a line-of-sight gun and anti-tank weaponry. Remote-controlled TALON robots can carry everything from an M240 machine gun to a .50 caliber rifle to grenades and rocket launchers.

The TALON military robots are one of the most common, and fastest, in service and weigh just 52kg. They have long mobile arms and are used primarily for bomb disposal.

They can move through snow, sand and water. There are 2,500 of these robots in Iraq and if they are damaged, they are flown to one of six dedicated ; robot hospitals for repairs. They are then returned to combat within hours.

A robot soldier will also never be bored, so it can be used for guard duty or long-term surveillance missions. South Korea plans to use robots called Intelligent Surveillance and Guard Robots to patrol its border with North Korea.

The robots use regular and infrared cameras to detect intruders up to 2.5 miles away.

They can chase a target, demanding a coded access number once they're within 10 meters of the intruder. If the target can't give the correct code, the robot could sound an alarm or even fire a weapon at the intruder.

Right now, though, most robots are controlled remotely by a human being at a command station. Some robots, however, have limited autonomy. But what, in the near future, if a robot evolves to have a mind of its own, goes berserk and starts behaving like violent human beings do?

Roboticist Ronald Arkin of Georgia Tech is already working on a robot-control architecture under contract from the US Army.

In a forthcoming book Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, he argues that ...autonomous armed robotic platforms may ultimately reduce noncombatant casualties and other forms of collateral damage by their ability to better adhere to the Laws of War than most soldiers possibly can.

And in a paper How Just Could a Robot War Be?, Peter Asaro of Rutgers University concludes that the use of autonomous technologies such as robot soldiers...could be just or unjust, depending on the situation.

The answer, indeed, may lie in situational ethics.

Leslie D' Monte in New Delhi