By Jörg Blech
The US Army's latest recruits are 1 meter (about 3 feet) tall, wear desert camouflage and are armed with black M249 machine guns. They also move on caterpillar tracks and -- thanks to five camera eyes -- can even see in the dark.
The fearless fighters are three robot soldiers who, unnoticed by the general public, were deployed in Iraq in mid-June, charged with hunting down insurgents. As if guided by an unseen hand, they hone in on their targets and fire at them with their machine guns. It's the future of war -- and it's already here.
"It's the first weaponized robot in the history of warfare," says Charles Dean, an engineer with Waltham, Massachusetts-based Foster-Miller, the manufacturer of the new devices. Dean and the 70 employees in his department are eager to find out how their three protégés are holding up on the front. Because the three robots, dubbed "Swords," are being used in a secret mission, their creators have no idea whether the devices have already killed enemy fighters in combat.
"We've already done plenty of shooting with the machine gun," says Col. Terry Griffin, who heads the joint US Army and Marine Corps robot program. If further tests are successful, a four-wheel version of the Gladiator could be headed for Iraq next year -- assuming US troops are still in the country.
According to Griffin, the combat robot is capable of disbanding groups of undesirables. There are three stages of escalation: First Gladiator issues warnings through a loudspeaker, then it fires rubber bullets and, finally, it starts firing its machine gun.
A New Kind of War
More than 50 years after author Isaac Asimov argued in his classic novel "I, Robot" that a robot should never be allowed to do harm to people, the development of automated killers has become unstoppable. Swords and Gladiator are the harbingers of a new type of warfare, in which killing will increasingly be left up to machines.
Automated warfare is also making inroads in Israel, where the military deploys robots along the country's 60-kilometer (37-mile) border with the Gaza Strip. The stationary "See-Shoot" system developed by Rafael, an Israeli weapons manufacturer, includes machine guns and cameras, and has a range of 1,500 meters (4,921 feet).
From a military standpoint, there are many reasons to support the growing use of steel soldiers. For one, fear and fatigue are non-issues. Robots kill without hesitating and, unlike flesh-and-blood soldiers, losing them is merely a financial loss. A new Swords goes for about $150,000. Besides, politicians and generals no longer need to worry about a public outcry over excessive fatalities: Who mourns a fallen tin soldier?
Still in Control
However, human operators are still strictly in control of these mechanical soldiers. It will be a while before the humanoid murderers portrayed in Hollywood films like "Robocop" and "Terminator" will be unleashed on humanity. "But there are no scientific barriers standing in the way of autonomous combat robots," says Ronald Arkin of the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology. "The parts of the whole are being assembled as we speak."
In his corner office, graying robotics expert Arkin investigates ways to prevent the grim scenarios of science fiction films from becoming reality. He is currently conducting an Internet survey in an attempt to determine how military officials, politicians, robotics researchers and ordinary citizens feel about autonomous killing machines.
What are the ethical rules these machines should follow when they are sent into war, for example? To help tackle the issue, Arkin is developing software that could be used to program the machines with such rules -- a sort of conscience for steel soldiers.
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