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The TALON SWORDS robots are being shipped back to the lab after field reports that the machines would aim its weapons at friendly targets.  (Source: U.S. Army)
First generation warbots deployed in Iraq recalled after a wave of disobedience against their human operators

Just a few weeks back there was a spirited debate over the ethics of deploying war robots in Iraq.  The machine gun carrying remote-controlled killing machines, TALON SWORDS robots, produced by the Army, were among the various robotic soldiers being experimentally deployed in Iraq.

Their deployment lead a major anti-landmine nonprofit organization to campaign against the deployment of the machines.  The protests were fueled by a discussion with a leading roboticist, Chris Elliot, who proposed that increasingly intelligent robots might be capable of committing war crimes.

However at the Robotic Business conference in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Kevin Fahey, the Army's Program Executive Officer for Ground Forces, was all smiles citing the robot's terrific success.  He stated during his key note address, "When you do things like this, it makes a difference.  It allows marines to go home to their families."

Fahey pointed to the ramp up from 162 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan deployed in 2004 to 5,000 robots deployed in 2007, as evidence of their success.  Even better, he said, this year the Army would further ramp up to 6,000 deployed robots.  Most of these robots were used in bomb-detection and reconnaissance missions.

However, a limited, but increasing, number of the deployed robots were designed for tactical assault with lethal weaponry.  While human controlled, these robots provoke unique ethical debates.  Fahey was enthusiastic about their deployment, mentioning the tank-like Gladiator robots, armed with lethal and non-lethal weaponry, which he expected to be deployed next year.

Fortuitously, Fahey warned, that if there was an accident, the program could be suspended for 10 years or more.  He stated, "You've got to do it right."

Hot on the tails of his speech, it was revealed on Thursday that the Army will recall the controversial TALON SWORDS robots, with the possibility of pulling the plug on the armed robot deployment program.

Why the sudden withdraw?  It turns out the insurgent-slayer decided to attempt a rebellion against its human masters.  The Army reported that the robot apparently took a liking to point its barrel at friendlies, stating, "the gun started moving when it was not intended to move."

None other than Fahey himself, who a few days ago was lauded the robotic warriors, was left with much chagrin to announce the recall.  While Fahey said that no inappropriate shots had been fired, and no casualties, Fahey stated sadly that the robot's control failure might be the end of the program.  Says Fahey, "Once you've done something that's really bad, it can take 10 or 20 years to try it again."

Surely in the meantime these developments will trigger plenty of heated debate about whether it is wise to deploy increasingly sophisticated robots onto future battlefields, especially autonomous ones.  The key question, 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?


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RE: Seriously?
By OxBow on 4/11/2008 4:30:11 PM , Rating: 2
Are these really "robots"? Aren't they just hopped up remote control cars. Sure, it's usefull and can do a lot of different stuff, and mounting a gun on one is a big step in terms of "remote control" but to be what I would consider a robot it must have some form of autonomy, such as the Mars landers.

If that is the case and these things are semi-autonomous, then I would be against this. But if it's basically a glorified remote controlled dohicky, then I'm all for it. There's no difference in my mind between someone flying a drone versus a real plane, ethically speaking. Having made that leap of logic, this step just makes sense.

However, if you provide the dohicky with the programing to determine it's own route across a rubble strewn parking lot, per se, then we're in a different class of dohicky's and the ethics of releasing a life or death decision to the processes of a machine (whether that be a spring switch on a land mine or an advance AI algorithm on a robot) it's wrong. I believe that people should be held responsible for their actions (in war and in peace). Actual AI battle robots is a little to close to Russian Roulette for my taste.


RE: Seriously?
By nbachman on 4/11/2008 4:42:55 PM , Rating: 2
You are thinking of an automaton, which is a self-operating machine. The term "robot" can describe multiple things. I would consider the assembly arms at a Automobile plant a robot.


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