After initial reports from Popular Mechanics and
other "more reliable" print news sources, that the semi-autonomous
SWORDS war-robots were being "yanked"
from Iraq due to their accidental targeting of human entities, it turns out
that they only
got the story half right.
While the robots did indeed get withdrawn from the battlefield, they're still
in Iraq being tested and may be redeployed in the near future. This is much
sooner than initial quotes by the program manager, Kevin Fahey, indicated (he
previously mentioned as span of 10 years or more before the program would be
fully active again in case of such an event). Now, Kevin Fahey states
more conservatively, "SWORD is still deployed. We continue to learn
from it and will continue to expand the use of armed robots."
Foster Miller, maker of the SWORD robot, was quick to try to dispel the hype
that surrounded the announcement that the robots might be shooting at our
soldiers, originally propagated by Popular Mechanics. Said
spokeswoman Cynthia Black, "The whole thing is an urban legend."
Black helpfully provided information on the specific cases in which
"uncommanded movement" occurred. She stated, "One case
involved a loose wire. So, now there is now redundant wiring on every circuit.
One involved a solder, a connection that broke. Everything now is
The third case had nothing to do with a gun. The robot was placed on a 45
degree incline and left to run for two and a half hours as part of an endurance
test. Predictably, the motor burned out and overheated. She states,
"When the motor started to overheat, the robot shut the motor off, that
caused the robot to slide back down the incline. Those are the three
There does seem to be some confusion between Fahey and Foster Mills, as Fahey
was reported as saying the robots recently did something "very bad"
(indicating a serious recent failure).
While Black and Fahey fail to mention it, one thing that makes a "killer
robot" scenario unlikely is the fact that the robots really are about as
green as it comes when it comes to combat. They (by all reports) are not
being used very much. Furthermore, they have not notched even one kill of
an enemy combatant.
Stew Magnuson, a reporter for National Defense, was at the same news
conference as Popular Mechanics, and helped to offer a bit more clarity
as to what is really going on. The real scenario he offered is that the
robots are languishing in under-deployment to the frustration of Foster Mills
and the conference was largely an effort by Foster Mills to express their
disappointment in this situation.
Robert Quinn, vice president of Talon operations at Foster-Miller, stated at
the news conference that the three robots sent to Iraq were stuck in stationary
positions behind sandbags and not out patrolling the streets as its designers
planned. Army leadership was fearful the "through an interface"
targeting of the robots via human operators in combat situations would produce
dangerous results, and thus refused to deploy them.
Quinn complained, "If you have a mobile weapons platform that can’t be
mobile, and it becomes nothing more than a fixed position, then why not just
put it on a tripod."
The Army argues, he said, that they have not addressed and trained in the
tactics, techniques, and procedures for using the robots in battle.
However, they say they can't put such measures in place until there are a
sufficient number of SWORDS robots in place. Foster Miller says they can
deploy more robots, necessarily, without the information obtained from the
trial deployment, so it’s a vicious case of the "chicken or the egg"
for the Army and Foster Mills.
The SWORDS robots are controlled via a human operator on a terminal, but are
semi-autonomous in that they can perform basic target acquisition. They
carry M249 light machine guns. While the robots have been somewhat
jokingly portrayed by the media as possible "rogue killers", in
reality the greatest chance for failure rests in the hands of the human
operator. Likely, the largest risk of friendly fire stems from if the
cameras on the robot provide confusing or insufficient information during a
combat situation and the human operator errantly fired as a result.
While the SWORDS are relatively germane, the concept of fully autonomous war
robots, using the advanced targeting algorithms that are currently being
researched, is still a fair subject
of intense debate. It will likely be tempting in terms of resources
saved for the military to eventually take the human operator out of the
equation, given sufficient
advances in artificial intelligence and mechanics.
This decision is not a matter of if, as much as when.
When it occurs, the closing point of the prior article stands -- despite all the testing and development effort
possible, is it truly possible to entirely rule out the chance of the robot
turning on its human controllers?