The Terminator Embryo
In science fiction, the computers become self aware and decide to turn on mankind, but as plans to bring robots to the battlefield continue with the US aiming to have it’s first autonomous robot soldier on the battlefield by 2035, questions of ethics are foremost in the mind of experts rather than any fear of AI robots hellbent on eliminating the scourge of mankind. My favourite quote however in the following piece from the Guardian is that while testing new robot fighter planes, they are accompanied by two manned fighter planes ready to shoot the robotic one out of the air in case it ‘malfunctions’.
Launching a new kind of warfare
Robot vehicles are increasingly taking a role on the battlefield - but their deployment raises moral and philosophical as well as technical questions
In November 2004, during the second battle of Fallujah, an American uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) - a robot plane - located a mortar battery that had been hampering the US operation to retake the town.The mortar's position was logged by the UAV's operator, who was sitting at his desk in Nellis Air Force base near Las Vegas, thousands of miles away. Using the internet, the operator contacted the operator of another armed UAV at a desk in central command ("Centcom") - a safe area away from the theatre of war, with centres in Kuwait, Qutar or Iraq.
The two operators swapped information on the mortar in a secure internet chat room, guiding the armed drone to its position to destroy the mortar and its crew.
According to Lieutenant General John Sattler, commander of the coalition forces at the battle, it was a proving ground for the use of remote vehicles. "We learned that UAVs can provide the coordinates required for artillery as well as aviation [targeting]. Our UAVs gave us the grid coordinates of an enemy position and allowed us to clear the area for fires and estimate collateral damage," says Sattler.
The new remote-controlled technology was also tested in 2001 in the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border, believed to be the last stronghold for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida fighters. Sending soldiers into the caves to try to capture fighters inside would carry huge risks. Instead, the US sent in armed Talon reconnaissance drones - small tanks equipped with camera and sensing equipment, and armed with anything from a sniper's rifle to rocket launchers. They were used to identify caves and positions held by al-Qaida.
Information gleaned from the Talons was used to direct what rapidly became a mopping-up operation - although bin Laden was not caught.
But that is only the beginning. By 2015, the US Department of Defense plans that one third of its fighting strength will be composed of robots, part of a $127bn (£68bn) project known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), a transformation that is part of the largest technology project in American history.
The US army has already developed around 20 remotely controlled Unmanned Ground Systems that can be controlled by a laptop from around a mile away, and the US Navy and US Air Force are working on a similar number of systems with varying ranges. According to a US general quoted in the US Army's Joint Robotics Program Master Plan (http://tinyurl.com/yl7s52), "what we're doing with unmanned ground and air vehicles is really bringing movies like Star Wars to reality". The US military has 2,500 uncrewed systems deployed in conflicts around the world. But is it Star Wars or I, Robot that the US is bringing to reality? By 2035, the plan is for the first completely autonomous robot soldiers to stride on to the battlefield.
The US is not alone. Around the globe, 32 countries are now working on the development of uncrewed systems. In the UK, Qinetiq, the former Defence Research Agency which owns Foster-Miller, manufacturers of the Talon system, confirmed that it has developed remote bulldozers and earthmovers and that its technology could also be installed in tanks - and scientists at Qinetiq told the Guardian two years ago that it had built a robot fighter plane. When flown on test flights, they said, the fighter is accompanied by two crewed fighters, whose role is to shoot it down if it malfunctions.