Archives For robot warfare

x47b takeoff

Human Rights Watch has seen the future of warfare and they don’t like it, not one bit. It’s pretty much inevitable that machines will be doing more and more fighting because they’re cheap and when one of them is destroyed by enemy fire, no one has to lose a father or a mother. Another one will be rolled off the assembly line and thrown into the fray. But the problem, according to a lengthy report by HRW, is that robots couldn’t tell civilians from enemy combatants during a war, and so humans should be the ones deciding who gets killed and who doesn’t. Today being able to distinguish civilians from hostiles is absolutely crucial because most wars being fought today are asymmetric and often involve complex, loosely affiliated groups which move through a civilian population and recruit civilians or so-called "non-state actors" to join them. How do you tell the difference, especially when you’re just a collection of circuits running code?

Just as HRW warns in its grandly titled report, robots left to make all the decisions could easily turn into indiscriminate killers, butchering everyone in sight and no human would be accountable for their actions because one could always blame a bug or lack of testing in real world situations on what could all too easily become a war crime. But considering that humans have a hard time telling who is on whose side in Afghanistan and faced the same problem in Iraq by keeping the country together until the population decided to come down hard on the worst of the sectarian militias, how well would a robot fare? HRW may be asking for an impossible goal here: to make a robot better at telling civilians apart from combatants than humans who spend years learning to do that. Of course as a computer person, I’m intrigued by the idea, but the only viable possibility that I see is to keep the entire population under constant surveillance, log their every movement, word, key stroke, and nervous tick, and parse the resulting oceans of data for patterns.

But how would that look? Excuse us, mind if we’d wire your building as if we’re shooting a reality show, install spyware on your computer, and tap your phones to record everything you say and do so our supercomputer doesn’t tell a drone to lob a 1,000 pound warhead through your living room window? Something tells me that’s not a viable plan, and even then, mistakes could easily be made by both humans and robots since our intra-cultural interactions are very complex and hard to interpret with certainty. And again, we already spy on people and still mistakes are made so it’s doubtful this technique would help, especially when we consider just how much data would come pouring in. Really, it all comes down to the fact that war is terrible and people get killed in armed conflicts. Mistakes can and will inevitably be made, robots or no robots, and asking that a nation looking to automate its mechanized infantry and air force keep on risking humans is like yelling into the wind. The only way civilians will be spared is if wars are prevented but preventing wars is a task at which we’ve been spectacularly failing for thousands of years…

It’s not often that a magazine like Foreign Policy devotes a column to video games, and yet soundbytes about the new Medal of Honor game set in modern Afghanistan prompted Matthew Shaer to ruminate on the role of video games in social commentary and vaguely question the validity of the cries about violent and realistic video games somehow turning their players into emotionally sterile psychopaths, an idea I argued against in a post for Discovery Tech based on the simple premise that human can usually tell reality from fiction. Since this topic has really been done to death, there’s very little new material Shaer could offer here, but some of the commenters on the article did bring up an interesting point that’s not often discussed even though it deserves some coverage. One of the key weapons used in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) today is a robotic drone armed with missiles, steered and fired from a remote location, with mechanics similar to video games. And it seems like this is the future of war as ever more robots are being equipped with guns, tracks, and remote controls.

As mentioned previously on this blog, using robots to fight wars is a politically attractive proposition. Should a robot get blown up or disabled, it’s not a human being. While the public is appalled at hearing that thousands of troops died in combat operations, piles of scrap metal hit by missiles or IEDs don’t exactly cause a stir and to grab another one off the assembly line when you need more guns firing at an enemy position during future battles is relatively easy and straightforward. And with robotic guards, scouts, and plans for heavier and better armed machines and unmanned bombers that could clear a path for a human army, the military seems to be very interested in killer robots on the battlefield. In several decades, a few pundits have argued, wars may be fought by remote control and boots on the ground would be needed to secure an area rather than engage in a direct assault on an enemy position. The actual attack would take place from the air by nimble bombers, and by mechanical tanks which could carry much more ammo without their human occupants. Today’s obsessive gamers, the concept usually proceeds to state, would be tomorrow’s top generals.

This is where a number of books and articles raise the concern about emotional detachment from actual war because a significant portion of the fighting would be done remotely, from a faraway bunker. Would the pilot of an unmanned bomber be able to remember that when he or she pushes the button, a real bomb drops on an enemy position and kills real people? Would the operators of robotic siege machines get a little overzealous, as per their gaming experience, and let loose with indiscriminate bursts that kill combatant and civilian alike, something that already happens in the real world in the middle of a battle with today’s soldiers? Being aware and very precise in your attacks is a very important skill that needs to be taught to those who will be operating remote controlled machines of malice, especially since for the foreseeable future, conflict will overwhelmingly likely involve unconventional warfare, in which enemy troops will blend into civilian populations rather than set up huge bases and arm themselves with tanks, planes, and naval destroyers. But against nation-states with conventional militaries, an army which uses vast fleets of robots for its first strikes would have the advantage, maximizing impact, minimizing its own casualties, and attacking well defined enemy targets.

It’s quite possible that training future robot pilots would take the form of video games, or at least something a lot like it, and hopefully reinforced with war games in which they’ll get to see the damage their commands can cause up close. But it’s not going to be done with games like Medal of Honor, or a first person shooter. I’d bet the training games in question would be more like StarCraft, and a modified version of first person shooters may be used to help hone soldiers’ reflexes, while having them wear gear that simulates pain when they’ve been shot by an enemy. I’d be surprised if casual gamers with a taste for first person shooters would want to actually try that level of immersion themselves while playing on their living room couch because to them, the whole point is to briefly escape reality, not to continuously subject themselves to the real world pains of being shot or stabbed. After all, there is a very fine line between simulation and entertainment, and that’s a line that very few commercial games would really want to cross for legal and financial reasons.

Talk about a return on investment. Just $300, a whole lot of talent and a million and a half views, a filmmaker from Uruguay is working on a $30 million movie deal to turn his short clip of a robot horde decimating the city of Montevideo into a fill blown sci-fi feature. I’m usually not one to gush, but count me among the many viewers astounded by how much Fede Alvarez accomplished on such a small budget. Just take a look at the video…

Yes, I know it’s just entertainment for the sake of showcasing how far special effects have come and providing an example that it doesn’t have to take millions of dollars to produce CG monsters. However, I’m going to pick on some details about the robots and their method of attack anyway, starting with their humanoid shape and bipedal locomotion. For small scale, human sized experiments like Asimo, having a robot walk on two legs is just fine. Their computers have to make some sixty calculations per second to keep the body balanced while taking a step, much like our muscles have to make numerous adjustments while we walk. But when we scale things up to a building sized robot, the weight and power of the parts involved change how the computers will have to keep the machines from tipping over if they miscalculate a step or a heavy mechanism in their torsos or arms will lean a little too much to the left or to the right. The number of required calculations soars and with it, so do the chances of errors and system crashes. A bipedal attack robot is just too risky to deploy.

The second problem with a giant human shaped robot is its high center of gravity. Take out its legs and it will slam into the ground like a small meteorite. Ideally you want your giant killer machines low to the ground and sitting on either metal tracks used by tanks, or extremely wide feet attached to long, angled legs with a hinge that swings in the opposite direction from human knees. You also would want to put its primary weapons as close to the center of mass as possible, making it more difficult to bring down with a well placed shot since a tank or aircraft charged with doing so would have to place itself in the direct line of fire to have the most effect. And the spectacular explosion at the end, radiating from four interconnected robots? Very cool, but also very expensive. Those high rise sized death machines can’t be cheap so it seems pretty decadent to stuff a huge thermonuclear warhead into them rather than drop one from one of the many fighters above.

But technicalities and nitpicking aside, if Fede Alvarez gets to make his doomsday blockbuster, I hope it sells a lot of tickets and DVDs. The last movie with giant robots, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow fell so far short of its promise, it was painful to watch. It would be a shame if it killed the giant robot genre and since it’s very possible that Alvarez’s efforts could bring it back to the big screen, it would be great if he succeeds.

when our killer robots attack

February 22, 2009

The year is 2025 and a small, sleek, triangular aircraft screams through the air over a war zone somewhere in Asia. As it approaches its mission objective, a devastating payload of missiles is launched from within its internal bomb bay in a deadly swarm and disperses towards their very own, individual targets. Within moments, the enemy outpost is rocked by simultaneous blasts. Everything from tanks to armories to barracks are blown to bits or engulfed in flames. All they saw was a blur in the skies that peeled out faster than any jet they’ve ever seen, some sure that their base was just attacked by an alien spacecraft in the first wave of an invasion. A pilot in this strange craft would surely black out from the sheer G-forces generated during its maneuvers, they say, and come to think of it there’s no room for a human pilot in the first place.

robot bomber

But it’s not an alien fighter. The origins of this craft are in a factory jointly ran by a few defense and aerospace contractors and it does have a pilot. It’s just that the pilot is thousands of miles away, guiding the aircraft via remote control, stepping in only when necessary to make evasive maneuvers an autopilot can’t. Until the bombing run, the robotic bomber relies on GPS and the guidance of its automatic flight systems. Its payload is smart enough to coordinate with a kind of hive mind in the bomber to select and lock on to individual targets in milliseconds. After the mission is complete, the pilot yanks the aircraft into a spiral to evade possible attack and steers it out of the active war zone. The autopilot takes over again, landing the bomber on a runway of an aircraft carrier or thousands of miles away at its home base.

And it doesn’t stop there. Robotic scouts explore urban hotspots, armed with armor piercing and incendiary rounds. Small, advanced probes patrol the skies, scanning for incoming jets or an approaching enemy convoy. Satellites above browse wide swaths of terrain to detect enemy movement and precisely target areas of interest. Another layer of satellites coordinates all the terabytes of data generated by the robots’ computers and ensures that the commands of their remote pilots are relayed. It all works together in a high tech symphony of destruction. Slowly but surely, the machines of malice have already started to take the place of soldiers. In the near future, there seems to be no reason for this trend to stop.

Sending a robot to the front lines is both practically and politically advantageous. Robots could take a lot more abuse than human soldiers. That’s what they’re built to do. They can also come with more firepower and be rigged with booby traps should someone actually manage to take them out of commission and try to examine them up close. Our theoretical bomber is able to pull of maneuvers that could render a pilot unconscious and without all the equipment needed to keep a human alive at stunning service ceilings, it could fly faster and higher than a modern, piloted jet. All a pilot has to do is step into a virtual cockpit and do the entire mission remotely as if the whole thing is a really complex video game or a training simulator except the screens show what’s actually happening in another part of the world, not just pixels. And isn’t it easier to run a military with easily replaceable, mass manufactured robots? Who’s going to complain about a robot body count being too high?

However, there are serious issues to consider before remote controlled killer robots take over en masse. With today’s technological imbalance on the battlefield, robotic armies wouldn’t be facing off against other robots. They would be used to aid soldiers in taking on other humans, enemy combatants who don’t have the same kind of capability. And is turning war into a video game like experience for thousands of troops an ethically sound idea? A military needs to use anything and everything it needs to get an edge. But are we really sure we want to sic squads of mechanical killers on our fellow human beings while we sit behind computers, ending lives with the press of a button? What if a future enemy also employs countless robots? Would the battle between mostly mechanical militaries last longer because humans are no longer right there on the front lines and factories are on standby to keep cranking out mechanical soldiers?