Automated forces could make life-death choicesBy Tim Weiner of THE NEW YORK TIMES
Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - The American military is working on a new generation of soldiers, far different from the army it has.
"They don't get hungry," said Gordon Johnson of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command. "They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
The robot soldier is coming.
The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the U.S. military in less than a decade, hunting and killing enemies in combat. Robots are a crucial part of the Army's effort to rebuild itself as a 21st-century fighting force, and a $127 billion project called Future Combat Systems is the biggest military contract in American history.
The military plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in automated armed forces. The costs of that transformation will help drive the Defense Department's budget up almost 20 percent, from a requested $419.3 billion for next year to $502.3 billion in 2010, excluding the costs of war. The annual cost of buying new weapons is scheduled to rise 52 percent, from $78 billion to $118.6 billion.
Military planners say robot soldiers will think, see and react increasingly like humans. In the beginning, they will be remote-controlled, looking and acting like lethal toy trucks. As the technology develops, they may take many shapes. And as their intelligence grows, so will their autonomy.
The robot soldier has been a dream at the Pentagon for 30 years. And some involved in the work say it may take at least 30 more years to realize in full. Well before then, they say, the military will have to answer some tough questions if it intends to trust robots with the responsibility of distinguishing friend from foe, combatant from innocent bystander.
Even the strongest advocates of automatons say that war will always remain a human endeavor, marked by death and disaster. And supporters like Robert Finkelstein, president of Robotic Technology in Potomac, Md., are telling the Pentagon that it could take until 2035 to develop a robot that looks, thinks and fights like a soldier. The Pentagon's "goal is there," he said, "but the path is not totally clear."
Robots in battle, as envisioned by their builders, may look and move like humans or hummingbirds, tractors or tanks, cockroaches or crickets. With the development of nanotechnology -- the science of very small structures -- they may become swarms of "smart dust." The Pentagon intends for robots to haul munitions, gather intelligence, search buildings or blow them up.
All these are in the works, but not yet in battle.
Already, however, several hundred robots are digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at American weapons depots.
By April, an armed version of the bomb-disposal robot will be in Baghdad, capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. Though controlled by a soldier with a laptop, the robot will be the first thinking machine of its kind to take up a front-line infantry position, ready to kill enemies.
"The real world is not Hollywood," said Rodney A. Brooks, director for the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and a co-founder of the iRobot Corp. "Right now, we have the first few robots that are actually useful to the military."
Despite the obstacles, Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of the deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade. If that mandate is to be met, the United States will be spending many billions of dollars on military robots by 2010.
As the first lethal robots head for Iraq, the role of the robot soldier as a killing machine has barely been debated. The history of warfare suggests that every new technological leap -- the longbow, the tank, the atomic bomb -- outraces the strategy and doctrine to control it.
"The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions," said Johnson, who leads robotics programs at the Joint Forces research center in Suffolk, Va. "I have been asked what happens if the robot destroys a school bus rather than a tank parked nearby. We will not entrust a robot with that decision until we are confident they can make it."
Trusting robots with potentially deadly decision-making may require a leap of faith in technology not everyone is ready to make.
Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has worried aloud that 21st-century robotics and nanotechnology may become "so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses."
"As machines become more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them," Joy wrote recently in Wired magazine. "Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control."
Pentagon officials and military contractors say the ultimate ideal of unmanned warfare is combat without casualties. Failing that, their goal is to give as many dirty, difficult, dull or dangerous missions as possible to the robots, conserving American minds and protecting American bodies in battle.
"Anyone who's a decision maker doesn't want American lives at risk," Brooks said. "It's the same question as, 'Should soldiers be given body armor?' It's a moral issue. And cost comes in."
Money, in fact, may matter more than morals.
The Pentagon today owes its soldiers $653 billion in future retirement benefits that it cannot pay. The cost of a soldier from enlistment to interment is about $4 million today and growing, according to a Pentagon study.
Robot soldiers are supposed to cost a tenth of that or less.
WHAT THEY DO
Now: Robots are digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at American weapons depots.
In the future: The Pentagon intends for robots to hunt and kill enemies in combat, haul munitions, gather intelligence or blow up buildings.