Adam Gettings of Robotex
A sampling of current headlines:
Killer robots could replace soldiers
Darpa hatches plan for insect cyborgs to fly reconnaissance
Who decides: Man or machine?
The first article, from Fortune magazine, tells us about Robotex, a Silicon Valley start-up, that "combines engineering skill and groundbreaking weaponry to create a new generation of soldiers."
...the future of urban warfare: a toy-like but gun-wielding robot designed to replace human soldiers on the battlefield. It's two feet tall, travels ten miles an hour, and spins on a dime. Remote-controlled over an encrypted frequency that jams nearby radios and cellphones, it'll blow a ten-inch hole through a steel door with deadly accuracy from 400 meters.
The main point of the story is not the robot weapon itself, impressive as it is, but how quickly and inexpensively it was developed.
Military contractors typically get the funding to build, test, and sell new weapons systems from federal agencies. It can take forever.
Robotex, based in Palo Alto, is financed by angel investors and went from idea to product in six months. "This is the new defense, Silicon Valley-style," says [robot engineer Adam] Gettings. "You build only what's necessary, iterate quickly, and keep the price low."
How low? Try $30,000 to $50,000. A similar bot, the Talon, which was developed by defense contractor Foster-Miller and is being tested in Iraq, costs six times that amount. "Our system does all the same things as the Talon, weighs half as much, and costs a fraction," says Gettings.
The second article, from EE Times, reports that:
Cyborg insects with embedded microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) will run remotely controlled reconnaissance missions for the military, if its '"HI-MEMS" program succeeds. Hybrid-Insect MEMS--a program hatched earlier this year at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)--aims to harness insects the way horses were harnessed by the cavalry. . .
"Michigan is focusing on horned beetles, while MIT and Boyce Thompson are working with large moths," said DARPA spokesman Jan Walker. "The program's first major milestone is scheduled for January 2008, when the contractors have to demonstrate controlled, tethered flight of the insect."
The final milestone at the end of phase three will be flying a cyborg insect to within five meters of a specific target located some one hundred meters away using remote control or a global positioning system (GPS). If HI-MEMS passes this test successfully, then Darpa will probably begin breeding in earnest. Insect swarms with various sorts of different embedded MEMS sensors--video cameras, audio microphones, chemical sniffers and more--could then penetrate enemy territory in swarms to perform reconnaissance missions impossible or too dangerous for soldiers.
Now, combine those two stories with this observation on Open-Source Warfare, taken from the IEEE Spectrum:
...some military analysts and counterterrorism experts say that, at its heart, this [Iraq] war is radically different from previous ones and must be thought of in an entirely new light.
“What we are seeing is the empowerment of the individual to conduct war,” says John Robb, a counterterrorism expert and author of the book Brave New War (John Wiley & Sons), which came out in April. While the concept of asymmetric warfare dates back at least 2000 years, to the Chinese military strategist Sun-tzu, the conflict in Iraq has redefined the nature of such struggles.
As events are making painfully clear, Robb says, warfare is being transformed from a closed, state-sponsored affair to one where the means and the know-how to do battle are readily found on the Internet and at your local RadioShack. This open global access to increasingly powerful technological tools, he says, is in effect allowing “small groups to…declare war on nations.”
Need a missile-guidance system? Buy yourself a Sony PlayStation 2. Need more capability? Just upgrade to a PS3. Need satellite photos? Download them from Google Earth or Microsoft's Virtual Earth. Need to know the current thinking on IED attacks? Watch the latest videos created by insurgents and posted on any one of hundreds of Web sites or log on to chat rooms where you can exchange technical details with like-minded folks.
Robb calls this new type of conflict “open-source warfare,” because the manner in which insurgent groups are organizing themselves, sharing information, and adapting their strategies bears a strong resemblance to the open-source movement in software development.
“For every move we make, the enemy makes three,” U.S. Brigadier General Joe E. Ramirez Jr. told attendees at a May conference on IEDs. “The enemy changes techniques, tactics, and procedures every two to three weeks. Our biggest task is staying current and relevant.”
Unfortunately, the traditional weapons acquisition process, which dictates how the United States and other Western militaries define and develop new weapons systems, is simply not designed to operate on such a fleeting timescale. It can take years and sometimes decades—not to mention many millions or billions of dollars—for a new military machine to move from concept to design to testing and out into the field.
Two major issues, intertwined, are at work here. The first is rapid, open-source, free-market development of advanced weaponry; and the second is active adoption of robot or cyborg fighting systems, some of which eventually may achieve a level of cognition where they can make their own choices about target acquisition and weapons deployment.
Combatants on every side are developing new weapons faster than ever before, and those weapons are becoming more powerful and potentially more autonomous. Where does it all lead?
The fourth article we listed above, taken from the Armed Forces Journal, includes this:
Col. Lee Fetterman, training and doctrine capabilities manager for FCS [Future Combat Systems], said he sees potential for robots to significantly increase the Army’s ability to detect the enemy or target, deliver the ordnance necessary to destroy the target and assess the effects of the attack. However, in the design of the systems that will employ robots, Fetterman said he believes an important potential capability should not be employed: the “decide” component.
“The function that robots cannot perform for us — that is, the function we should not allow them to perform for us — is the decide function. Men should decide to kill other men, not machines,” he said. “This is a moral imperative that we ignore at great peril to our humanity. We would be morally bereft if we abrogate our responsibility to make the life-and-death decisions required on a battlefield as leaders and soldiers with human compassion and understanding. This is not something we would do. It is not in concert with the American spirit.”
While we appreciate Col. Fetterman's sentiments, we're not sure it's realistic to assume that the "decide function" will forever be reserved to humans alone, and not given to robots.
Thorny questions of ethics, morals, and military expedience will confront us in this scary new world. And, guess what, we haven't even raised the game-changing nature of molecular manufacturing, which holds the potential for revving up development and deployment of advanced weaponry to a whole new level.