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[] Robot infantry get ready for the battlefield


New Scientist magazine, issue 2570, 21 September 2006, page 28

Robot infantry get ready for the battlefield
Paul Marks

"Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply." So said the
armed robot in Paul Verhoeven's 1987 movie RoboCop. The suspect drops his
weapon but a fault in the robot's software means it opens fire anyway.
Nearly two decades later, such fictional weapon-toting robots are looking
startlingly close to reality - and New Scientist has discovered that some
may eventually help to decide who is friend and who is foe.

Sometime in the coming months, chances are that we'll be seeing TV reports
that an armed remote-controlled robot has been used in anger for the first
time. "They will appear when they appear. I can't talk about when that may
be," says Bob Quinn, general manager at Foster-Miller of Waltham,
Massachusetts, whose machine-gun-equipped robot, called Sword, was
certified safe for use by the US forces in June.

Robots have already shown their mettle in defensive roles, detonating
improvised bombs in the UK, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. Foster-Miller's
Talon robot and its rival PackBot, from the Massachusetts-based company
iRobot, are the lightweight robots now used for these tasks. These tracked
machines, controlled by an operator sitting in an armoured vehicle, are
capable of being driven at high speed and use manipulator arms and
grippers to place a small explosive charge to disable a suspected bomb.

Now versions of these robots are being developed that will allow troops to
manoeuvre and fire a variety of weapons. iRobot has built a prototype
equipped with a 20-round shotgun. "It will be able to fire over four dozen
different kinds of shotgun ammunition, everything from large slugs that
would kill an elephant, to buckshot that would cover a wide area," says
Joe Dyer, head of iRobot's military division.

Foster-Miller's Sword is a variant of Talon in which the manipulator arm
has been replaced by a rotating machine-gun carrier. "It's for urban
combat and perimeter security and it's fully controlled by the soldier,"
Quinn says. Touted uses include checking out a potential ambush.

Both companies stress that there is always a human in control of the
robots. Apart from a planned autonomous "return home" function, neither
Sword nor the iRobot prototype operates autonomously.
"Neither Sword not the iRobot prototype operates autonomously"

Nevertheless, more complex machines may soon be on the drawing board. A
research request issued in August by the Pentagon's Office of Naval
Research (ONR) shows that military robots are one day going to be asked to
make some important decisions on their own. The ONR wants to engineer
mobile robots to "understand cooperative and uncooperative" people, and
inform their operator if they seem a threat. It hopes to do this using
artificial intelligence software fed with data from a "remote
physiological stress monitoring" system, and by using speech, face and
gesture recognition. From this it would draw inferences about the threat
that person poses.

It's a prospect that is causing some concern. "It is ethically problematic
to use software that may work in lab conditions but not under a whole
range of extreme conditions, such as when you suspect someone might be a
suicide bomber," says Kirsten Dautenhahn, an AI expert at the University
of Hertfordshire in the UK.

Lucy Suchman, an expert in human-computer interaction at Lancaster
University, UK, is even more critical: "This plan is just ridiculous. It
involves the worst kind of simplistic profiling. It's a fantasy on the
part of technology enthusiasts within the Pentagon."

Quinn, however, disagrees. The ONR is not known for wasting research
dollars, he says, and what it funds usually happens - even if it is 10
years away. "Recognition technology is progressing fast. I think it will
separate the wheat from the chaff," he predicts.

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