Packing an M249 machine gun and laced in camouflage treads what may be the next caliber of U.S. soldier. But at roughly three feet tall, with night vision embedded in its mechanical eyes and a battery life of around four hours, the military’s newest recruit comes not from the ordinary military training camp but off the technological assembly line.

Jess Cox
Diagram of SWORDS shows the different components of the remote-controlled military combat robot.
(Courtesy of Foster-Miller)

Originally slated for deployment in Iraq this month, but postponed to an unspecified later date, the remote-controlled SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection, is set to become the first armed mobile robot to see offensive ground combat. The U.S. Army hopes that with the availability of an infantry robot to support ground forces and engage in the high-risk combat tasks, the military will yield fewer human casualties.

“Our soldiers are saying this device will keep (them) alive,” said Bob Quinn, spokesman for Foster-Miller, the technology company that designed SWORDS.

Despite their potential of saving American lives, Rackham student and roboticist Steven Collins balks when he considers the long-term consequences of such technology.

If robot soldiers like SWORDS do succeed in reducing the military’s casualty rate and increasingly take the stead of human troops in the future, Collins fears warfare will unfold into an even deadlier affair: without the cost of human lives weighed in America’s decision to engage in armed conflict, unnecessary wars become all too easy for the U.S. to wage.

“There’s a lot of good uses for robots,” Collins said. “Sticking a gun on them for battle may be one of them. But I don’t think we are ready for it. Psychologically we are not. … The potential for abuse is overwhelming.”

In the last decade, robots have seen an increase in use by the military as U.S. forces have actively deployed non-combat robots to the battlefield like unmanned aerial vehicles outfitted for air reconnaissance to mine detecting seeker bots.

But SWORDS crosses a threshold where the military only dares stride since it is specifically designed for combat operations. Some University roboticists like Collins cringe at this new undertaking, protecting their own research from following the same fate as SWORDS and hoping the military will realize the flaws in their vision. Extending to the political, philosophical and ethical spectrum, the issue of using robots as weapons reflects the complex fallout between the military and scientists and the ongoing use of the evolving technology for war.

 

ROBOT VISIONS

Collins builds bi-pedal walking robots in the hopes his research will one day result in artificial prostheses for amputees. Robot walkers will never take the form of soldiers like SWORDS since they are impractical for killing he says. And for that, Collins said he is relieved.

“I am glad to say that our robots will very likely never be of any use militarily. If we thought they might, we wouldn’t be developing them,” he said.

For Collins, military robots like SWORDS break the ethical boundaries of what technology is acceptable and what technology should be forbidden.

Like the science-fiction movies that depict out-of-control robots taking over the world, Collins fears employing robotic technology for military purposes will give way to disaster. Yet his fears stem not from robots disobeying their masters, but from the masters misusing the robots.

The potential benefits of supplanting human soldiers with robots are enormous militarily, Collins said.

“In the long-term future, people have speculated that human conflicts could simply be fought out by machines with no cost in human life,” he said. With the development of such technology like SWORDS, that future may be realized, and the cost of war will be minimized, Collins added. But with an American public already desensitized to war, the last safeguard preventing nations from resorting to military confrontation will be removed, Collins said.

“We only seem to weigh the cost of war in the lives of our own soldiers, not in dollars, not in casualties, and certainly not in lives of those humans that we call ‘enemy,’ ” he added.

Jun Ho Choi, a Rackham student who also works on building bi-pedal robots shares Collins’s apprehension about robots like SWORDS.

“This may be a positive way to improve the military, but I do not believe this is a positive way to improve our lives because I am worried about people becoming less serious about war since robots are fighting. We might end up having war every day,”

In spite of the fears scientists may have of SWORDS, human soldiers will still be manning the battlefields, said Frank Misurelli, spokesman for the U.S Army Picatinny research center based in New Jersey, which is currently testing the combat robot.

“There will not be 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 SWORDS hitting the shores of Normandy any time soon,” he added.

Rather, SWORDS is meant to work in tandem with a platoon of troops, he said. Only two SWORDS will be assigned to a squad of 12 to 14 soldiers and will act as more of a support unit that can be called upon to counterattack ambushes or search through areas that may contain enemies.

Nor is SWORDS a self-thinking robot soldier, Quinn said. In essence, SWORDS is just an extension of the soldier and that $230,000 worth of extension allows the soldier to operate the robot from a distance of up to half a mile, he added.

“There is not an ounce of automation in these robots. … It’s just that (the soldier) is pulling the trigger remotely,” Quinn said.

No one can deny that SWORDS will save lives, Quinn said. But unlike Collins, Quinn’s believes the long-term effects of such technology will create a new form of deterrent that he believes will promote peace.

Currently, the U.S. Air Force is unmatched as in the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq. American air superiority was able to effectively bomb targets with little resistance from Iraqi forces, Quinn said. America’s enemies already realize it is nearly impossible to oppose the U.S. Air Force, he said.

“Just like enemies don’t use their air force against ours. They know that we have this overwhelming capability. It would be suicide to attack,” Quinn added.

U.S. ground forces lack that tactical overmatch since enemy forces can still inflict significant casualties to the U.S. Army, Quinn said. SWORDS, however, aims to change that by distancing human soldiers from the violence so that armed resistance to U.S. forces becomes futile. “It will create a condition that will stop the enemy from warring with us,” he added.

“Any and all technologies can be abused,” said Bob Dennis a roboticist and former professor of mechanical engineering at the University, now teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But fashioning robots into weapons is not an abuse of robotic technology, Dennis said.

Dennis, who has worked with military organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense, said, “Any autonomous guided missile is a robot. … Is (the missile) any more or less evil than a robot that shoots people directly and happens to look like the Governor of California?”

 

A NEW WAR MACHINE

Asked if he thinks robots will ever replace human soldiers, Quinn said he is doubtful.

Robots have yet to eclipse the human-mind, he said, and because of this, SWORDS will never be given autonomy. Military commanders believe in this same philosophy, he added.

“There is nothing as sophisticated as a human, (robots) are tools for a soldiers. There are rules of engagements that change. It’s just too complicated for automation,” he said.

That does not mean the military is not exploring other options besides SWORDS.

As part of the larger scheme of the U.S. military’s aim to revolutionize America’s armed forces for 21st century combat, Future Combat Systems is a joint effort from all echelons of the military to further implement high-tech weaponry into the armed forces and connect 18 different sets of military command systems under one network. By weaving U.S. forces into this net, commanders envisage a faster and lighter army, which can rapidly deploy itself across the world in days and utilize a far wider range of intelligence.

Charged with part of the duty of tying the FCS program together is DARPA. As the developer of military technology like the M-16 rifle and unmanned aerial vehicles, DARPA not only strives to link the FCS program together, but is also spearheading a major frontier of the FCS plan and America’s military advancement: the development of future unmanned combat systems.

DARPA’s aim is not to replace human soldiers as these unmanned systems will only take a limited support role, DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said.

“Congress has directed that one-third of operational ground combat vehicles be unmanned by 2015, and that one-third of operational deep strike aircraft be unmanned by 2010,” she said.

The Pentagon reported in its forecast of the military’s future, “Joint Vision 2020” that with the expansion unmanned combat technology, U.S. forces will achieve one aspect of securing its military superiority.

“We want technology that allows the military to team people with autonomous platforms to create a more capable, agile and cost-effective force capable of achieving its mission with significantly lower risk of U.S. causalities,” she said.

Such unmanned systems include remote-controlled aerial vehicles fitted with surveillance and combat weapons and the development of new unmanned ground combat vehicles dubbed UGCVs, which would forego an onboard crew in order to make gains in the performance of the vehicle.

Although it is yet to be determined to what degree these unmanned systems will need the assistance of a human operator, sacrificing human guidance for military superiority is a step in the wrong direction, Jun Ho Choi said. He also he fears the military will lose control over robots installed with a limited intelligence.

“If the mission of the robots are ‘passive’ — things like sensing enemies, finding mines, etcetera, I don’t have any problems. But I don’t believe we have enough technology to have robots do things more ‘active’ — shooting at people, firing bombs, etcetera,” he said.

“In short, you don’t want to give machines and robots the ultimate decision making authorities in rapidly changing circumstances,” said Mechanical Engineering Prof. Yoram Koren, who has worked on robotics in the past. “The wrong decision may create a huge disaster,” he added.

But more troubling is the military’s bid to amass new technologies for the usage of a new brand of warfare, Collins said. The U.S. army even recently tried to incorporate his research, proposing that he build a robot designed to carry ammunition to soldiers on the battlefield.

“Although in the short run it is very appealing to think that we could use Army money for better things, preventing it from being used to design better ways to kill people,” Collins said. But new technology has already gone too far in facilitating America’s attempts to wage war, he said.

“We can see that happening, when technologies are getting improved, we become more desensitized toward war.”

 

IN THE SHADOW OF TECHNOLOGY

When it comes to robots in the military, “It’s a very touchy subject,” Collins said.

Since military organizations like DARPA actively fund many robotic research projects, Collins said the issue is a taboo subject as military research has always been seen in a negative light. Moreover, it can invoke controversial questions as to whether certain research will benefit society or not, he said.

The University is also involved in researching robotics that could be used for military purposes, which include designing robots for mine inspection or locating survivors of disasters. While the University has no stated policy of prohibiting the research related to weapons, the Office of the Vice President of Research adheres to the University’s tradition of conducting research aimed at enhancing life and the human condition, according to the University Board of Regents’s research grants policy. The professors developing these robots declined to be interviewed.

History Prof. Nicholas Steneck and faculty associate of the Office of Vice President of Research at the University who specializes in ethics in science, said the scientific issues like the usage of military robots needs to be brought to the attention of the public.

“The issue of a making war easier or more difficult to pursue is an important one that has been and needs to be debated,” he added.

Steneck argues that current developments in warfare technology have already impacted how America wages war and weapons like SWORDS could do the same.

“Had precision bombing not been possible, it is doubtful that we would have gotten into Iraq in the first place since there would have been so many more civilian deaths,” he said.

Robots don’t kill people, Steneck said. “Ultimately, weapons do no more or less than what we tell them to do, so it is the people and the decision making process that require the most attention.”

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