The Future of War Attack of the Killer Robots

Robot warriors have already seen action in Iraq, and the US Army plans to replace one-third of its armored vehicles and weapons with robots by 2015. These killing machines may one day come equipped with an artificial conscience -- even to the extent of disobeying immoral orders.

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.

It seems only a matter of time before the three combat robots will get some reinforcements. The American military is currently testing the Gladiator, an unmanned mobile device developed by engineers at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gladiator weighs more than a ton and comes equipped with rubber tires that enable it to scurry up inclines of up to 60 percent. The US military has already mounted a targeting camera and a remote-controlled M240 machine gun on a prototype.

"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.

The US Army is developing a number of warrior robots.

The US Army is developing a number of warrior robots.

According to an internal US Army memo, armed machines "are making their way onto today's battlefields and will be extremely widespread on the battlefields of the future." The Pentagon's budget already includes up to $200 billion for a modernization program dubbed "Future Combat System." Under the program, robots will replace one third of armored vehicles and weapons by 2015.

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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