Last August, U.S. Navy operators on the ground lost all contact with a Fire Scout helicopter flying over Maryland. They had programmed the unmanned aerial vehicle to return to its launch point if ground communications failed, but instead the machine took off on a north-by-northwest route toward the nation's capital. Over the next 30 minutes, military officials alerted the Federal Aviation Administration and North American Aerospace Defense Command and readied F-16 fighters to intercept the pilotless craft. Finally, with the Fire Scout just miles shy of the White House, the Navy regained control and commanded it to come home. "Renegade Unmanned Drone Wandered Skies Near Nation's Capital," warned one news headline in the following days. "UAV Resists Its Human Oppressors, Joyrides over Washington, D.C.," declared another.
The Fire Scout was unarmed, and in any case hardly a machine with the degree of intelligence or autonomy necessary to wise up and rise up, as science fiction tells us the robots inevitably will do. But the world's biggest military is rapidly remaking itself into a fighting force consisting largely of machines, and it is working hard to make those machines much smarter and much more independent. In March, noting that "unprecedented, perhaps unimagined, degrees of autonomy can be introduced into current and future military systems," Ashton Carter, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, called for the formation of a task force on autonomy to ensure that the service branches take "maximum practical advantage of advances in this area."
In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops have been joined on the ground and in the air by some 20,000 robots and remotely operated vehicles. The CIA regularly slips drones into Pakistan to blast suspected Al Qaeda operatives and other targets. Congress has called for at least a third of all military ground vehicles to be unmanned by 2015, and the Air Force is already training more UAV operators every year than fighter and bomber pilots combined. According to "Technology Horizons," a recent Air Force report detailing the branch's science aims, military machines will attain "levels of autonomous functionality far greater than is possible today" and "reliably make wide- ranging autonomous decisions at cyber speeds." One senior Air Force engineer told me, "You can envision unmanned systems doing just about any mission we do today." Or as Colonel Christopher Carlile, the former director of the Army's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence, has said, "The difference between science fiction and science is timing."
We've gathered some of the most powerful and fear-inducing robots to date in this gallery. Click the thumbnails to see more ways bots are getting faster, smarter and more lethal.
We are surprisingly far along in this radical reordering of the military's ranks, yet neither the U.S. nor any other country has fashioned anything like a robot doctrine or even a clear policy on military machines. As quickly as countries build these systems, they want to deploy them, says Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England: "There's been absolutely no international discussion. It's all going forward without anyone talking to one another." In his recent book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Brookings Institution fellow P.W. Singer argues that robots and remotely operated weapons are transforming wars and the wider world in much the way gunpowder, mechanization and the atomic bomb did in previous generations. But Singer sees significant differences as well. "We're experiencing Moore's Law," he told me, citing the axiom that computer processing power will double every two years, "but we haven't got past Murphy's Law." Robots will come to possess far greater intelligence, with more ability to reason and self- adapt, and they will also of course acquire ever greater destructive power. So what does it mean when whatever can go wrong with these military machines, just might?
I asked that question of Werner Dahm, the chief scientist of the Air Force and the lead author on "Technology Horizons." He dismissed as fanciful the kind of Hollywood-bred fears that informed news stories about the Navy Fire Scout incident. "The biggest danger is not the Terminator scenario everyone imagines, the machines taking over—that's not how things fail," Dahm said. His real fear was that we would build powerful military systems that would "take over the large key functions that are done exclusively by humans" and then discover too late that the machines simply aren't up to the task. "We blink," he said, "and 10 years later we find out the technology wasn't far enough along."
Dahm's vision, however, suggests another "Terminator scenario," one more plausible and not without menace. Over the course of dozens of interviews with military officials, robot designers and technology ethicists, I came to understand that we are at work on not one but two major projects, the first to give machines ever greater intelligence and autonomy, and the second to maintain control of those machines. Dahm was worried about the success of the former, but we should be at least as concerned about the failure of the latter. If we make smart machines without equally smart control systems, we face a scenario in which some day, by way of a thousand well-intentioned decisions, each one seemingly sound, the machines do in fact take over all the "key functions" that once were our domain. Then "we blink" and find that the world is one we no longer are able to comprehend or control.
Today soldiers and airmen can see that the machines are becoming their equals or betters, at least in some situations. Last summer, when I visited the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, scientists there showed me a video demonstration of a system under development, called Sense and Avoid, that they expect to be operational by 2015. Using a suite of onboard sensors, unmanned aircraft equipped with this technology can detect when another aircraft is close by and quickly maneuver to avoid it. Sense and Avoid could be used in combat situations, and it has been tested in computer simulations with multiple aircraft coming at the UAV from all angles. Its most immediate benefit, however, might be to offer proof that UAVs can be trusted to fly safely in U.S. skies. The Federal Aviation Administration does not yet allow the same UAVs that move freely in war zones to come anywhere near commercial flights back home and only very rarely allows them to fly even in our unrestricted airspace. But Sense and Avoid algorithms follow the same predictable FAA right-of-way rules required of all planes. At one point in the video, which depicted a successful test of the system over Lake Ontario, a quote flashed on the screen from a pilot who had operated one of the oncoming aircraft: "Now that was as a pilot would have done it."
Machines already possess some obvious advantages over us mere mortals. UAVs can accelerate beyond the rate at which pilots normally black out, and they can remain airborne for days, if not weeks. Some military robots can also quickly aim and fire high-energy lasers, and (in controlled situations) they can hit targets far more consistently than people do. The Army currently uses a squat, R2-D2–like robot called Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar, or C-RAM, that employs radar to detect incoming rounds over the Green Zone or Bagram Airfield and then shoot them down at a remarkable rate of 70 percent. The Air Force scientists also spoke of an "autopilot on steroids" that could maximize fuel efficiency by drawing on data from weather satellites to quickly modify a plane's course. And a computer program that automatically steers aircraft away from the ground when pilots become disoriented is going live on F-16s later this year.
For the moment, the increase in machine capability is being met with an increase in human labor. The Air Force told Singer that an average of 68 people work with every Predator drone, most of them to analyze the massive amount of data that each flight generates. And as the Pentagon deploys ever more advanced imaging systems, from the nine-sensor Gorgon Stare to the planned 368-sensor ARGUS, the demand for data miners will continue to grow. Because people are the greatest financial cost in maintaining a military, though, the Pentagon is beginning to explore the use of "smart" sensors. Drawing on motion-sensing algorithms, these devices could decide for themselves what data is important, transmitting only the few minutes when a target appears, not the 19 hours of empty desert.
Ronald Arkin, the director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, hypothesizes that, within certain bounded contexts, armed robots could even execute military operations more ethically than humans. A machine equipped with Arkin's prototype "ethical governor" would be unable to execute lethal actions that did not adhere to the rules of engagement, minimize collateral damage, or take place within legitimate "kill zones." Moreover, machines don't seek vengeance or experience the overwhelming desire to protect themselves, and they are never swayed by feelings of fear or hysteria. I spoke to Arkin in September, just a few days after news broke that the Pentagon had filed charges against five U.S. soldiers for murdering Afghan civilians and mutilating their corpses. "Robots are already stronger, faster and smarter," he said. "Why wouldn't they be more humane? In warfare where humans commit atrocities, this is relatively low-hanging fruit."
John Connor: By the time Skynet became self-aware it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms; everywhere. It was software; in cyberspace. There was no system core; it could not be shutdown. The attack began at 6:18 PM, just as he said it would. Judgment Day, the day the human race was almost destroyed by the weapons they'd built to protect themselves. I should have realized it was never our destiny to stop Judgment Day, it was merely to survive it, together. The Terminator knew; he tried to tell us, but I didn't want to hear it. Maybe the future has been written. I don't know; all I know is what the Terminator taught me; never stop fighting. And I never will. The battle has just begun.
Isn't that the Green Lion from Voltron?
Cue the music!!!
Any international agreement on robotic warfare is, and will be, unduely constrictive to developed military powers. In other words, everyone without advanced unmanned vehicles will want to constrain technology they do not have. Much like the nuclear arms race, everyone who does not have them wants them heavily regulated in public, but secretly wishes they had them.
Also, much like the weaponization of space, as soon as super-powers collide, these treaties fly out the window.
Of course, every nation that is still putting humans in the field wants tight control of robotic warfare, but that is because they fear powerlessness, not out of control robots. When your enemy does not have to risk his life to threaten yours, you cannot hope for victory - this is vastly disturbing to those who realize that a trashcan of chemicals can destroy an armored truckload of even the greatest superpower today.
Robots will make mistakes in (and out of) war. These mistakes will be costly. They will be different that those caused by people - seem more sensless, since they are not tied to those human flaws we are more familiar with.
We are, however, FAR away from a Terminator scenario of any level. That requires an integrated system that controls not only the military's systems, but the infrastructure to refuel (or refuel the refueling systems), to perform maintainance (tighten bolts, change oil, etc), and to construct further units.
So, until we are at a point where from mineshaft and oilwell to active arms is automated on a single system without sufficient failsafe, the fears of robotics are psycological, not actual.
I SO want the above robot!
@Oakspar77777...BEA is building a system to do all you mention and more and those fail safes have already failed without anyone sabataging the fail safes...check this out http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-11/robot-soldiers-could-make-better-decisions-data-strewn-battlefields-future...soon to a battle near you!
"Are We Giving Our Military Machines Too Much Power?" Maybe not yet, but all i know is, if theres money to be made you bet your a** we will
I for one welcome our robot overlords
Well.. I think there are certain advantages to the entire robot army idea.Personally, I think we are light-years away from creating an AI that has the sixth sense of perception like a human. Like us. I agree with Dr. Claw on Inspector Gadget when he described a robot army as beings who "never get tired.. never get hungry.. and never say no." BUT, I think robots will always be outsmarted by a human because the have a lack of feel for the world around them and no emotion. Emotion is part of what drives us.
Also, a robot army is technology that could be dangerous to the wrong nations. Yes, they might be inferior to real people..but thousands of ants could kill a human. A mass army of these robots could definitly be used to wipe out any civ in its path.
My thoughts are we should tread our path very carefully.
As opposed to some maniac going on a shooting spree on a military base? I'll go with the machines thanks...
I have read a few aircraft crash reports in which the cause was determined to be that, contrary to their training, pilots listened to mislead Air Traffic Controllers rather than obeying the automated collision avoidance system. Perhaps in some situations we should rely on robotics more.
@Vash101 I think what you mean by 'feel for the world around them' might be termed intuition. This is normally what happens when soldiers know that something is about to go horrendously wrong but don't have enough information to determine exactly what. The resolution, accuracy, reliability and durability of sensors available to robots mean they can gather more information than we can. My eyes can't see infrared or have 70x zoom.
Emotion isn't required to fight a war, as stated in the article, emotions often lead to bad tactical decisions by humans.
Emotion is a human flaw as much as it allows us to react appropriately to every situation, it often times causes us to make the wrong decision. As far as the Terminator theory, take a look around! Almost everything that science fiction predicted (cell phones, flying cars, 3d tv/movies, virtual reality) in the past century has come true. How can we be so naive to believe that everything that science fiction has predicted in the past 20 years wont also come true in the near future. We must allow ourselves to be open to any possibility. We take life for granted everyday and expect nothing to change or get worse than what has already happened in the past. This ignorance will be the cause to an eventual global fallout.
I just really have to thank PopSci, and in particular, Dr. Werner Dahm. You have given me some real relief that my concerns (that I often get ridiculed on here for talking about) regarding our headlong rush into a computerized national defense are indeed shared at the highest levels of our military. Many on here have treated me like I'm just a crank for voicing my real concerns about actually trusting machines over our hard won lessons that we've learned from real battle. I find the blind faith that many exhibit on here frightening to a much greater degree than any fears that I have regarding our actual troops. I have no faith that technology is our savior. I prefer to believe that if we cannot depend on our people to save our nation, that we are already dead. I'm very gratified specifically, to see the two terms Moore's Law, and Murphy's Law in the same sentence; and that it comes from a Fellow of considerable significance at the Brookings Institution. Thank you for your dedicated service.
>>> Congress has called for at least a third of all military ground vehicles to be unmanned by 2015
Why stop there? Why not call for an army of giant, humanoid robots that look like Gigantor, can fly and shoot lasers from their eyes?
Congress, you're so silly. In a dangerous, clueless, detached from reality kind of way.
I was the source, unintentionally, of the rumor gone wild mentioned here:
"In 2007, when the first batch of the armed tank-like robots called SWORDS were deployed to Iraq—and then quickly pulled from action—a story spread about one aiming its guns on friendly forces."
What I wrote, based on one interesting moment in an otherwise newsless robot conference, got warped beyond belief in a game of blog telephone. It's a little sad to see it still getting false mileage, without any caveats or explanations, but hey, why bother fact-checking or reporting on something that was spawned by a lack of fact-checking or reporting.
I understand the need for hype and referencing the terminator. While we are referencing movies, "Let's play Global Thermonuclear War."
Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain, a starship also runs on loyalty to one man. And nothing can replace it or him.
--Spock in 'The Ultimate Computer'
While we spend our millions on futuristic robots and our military, the Chinese are spending their millions on improving their production capabilities and raising the standard of the average citizen.
Where we could possibly benefit is when we realize that these robots can assist in the manufacturing and other industries on a mass scale (for peaceful means). Production facilities that incorporate solar power (battery backed) with robotics could compete with the Chinese, but our ideas about "overpopulation" will need some adjustment.
"The Terminator Scenario: Are We Giving Our Military Machines Too Much Power"?
They will have no choice once they figure out that if they don't the "WAL-MART" people will out breed them :-)
I find these developments very disconcerting, to say the least. Why is it always the military, which has to be on the forefront of inventing destructive technology - as if we don't have enough of it already!? Of course the answer is that only the military has limitless financial power to do so. Why can't we have a peace-dept.? Just as well-financed and without any weapons and destructive purposes? Peace is what we need, not war.
My only hope is that on the day when these manmade machines take over, they are actually so much smarter than us that they will make better decisions. Because as a whole, we humans are ultimately destroying ourselves and the entire planet with us. And this leaves me with only one conclusion: As a whole, we humans are actually the dumbest species on earth. The irony is, machines won't need nature or humans to survive - its us who need machines - and nature.
"Learn to Live & Live to Learn"
Alexander von Humboldt
Multitasking: The art of screwing up everything all at once.
I find this article very un-nerving. The military made the internet and many other things that we use today, but they don't seem to know when to stop. The invention of the nuclear bomb in 1945 was the beginning of this. Even though the bomb helped develop nuclear power, it almost destroyed us all during the Cold War and has created many problems like mutations and other diseases caused by radioactivity. I think there is a line that needs to be made saying whether or not we are giving robots to much power, and not just military wise. More and more people are becoming un-employed because cheaper and more efficient machines are taking there place. Overall I think that the development of technology needs to be slowed down or we will outsmart ourselves.