Military Robots: Technology, Meet Science Fiction

By Faye Higbee

Military Robots used to be dumb.  But things have started to change within the last 10 years or so. DARPA’s Machine Common Sense Program, as well as The Army Research Lab are working on robots that can follow orders and actually assist their human counterparts. Er…without killing them, of course.

Though they’ aren’t totally there yet, that hasn’t stopped the companies from releasing some rather scary videos (note: these are called parody in Popular Mechanics. PARODY and use a lot of special techniques (Computer Generated Imagery- CGI) to make the videos).

AI technology is evolving rapidly, but as one expert said recently,

“Current AI and robotics systems are brittle and prone to misunderstanding—think Alexa or Siri. So if we put them in the battlefield, I sure hope we don’t give them any destructive capabilities.” Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Mr. Etzioni is opposed to autonomous military robots until all of the issues are handled. And even then, science fiction coming to life could be deadly. Siri and Alexa tend to misunderstand the questions frequently – have you ever had to ask them several times for something and then have to give up because they just don’t get it? Yes, like that. Any robot assisting a military service member on the battlefield has to be trustworthy.

Military robots will have to learn and understand soldier’s language and procedures, and the soldiers will have to learn the capabilities and limitations of the robots. The Army has software to teach the robot to ASK if it doesn’t understand a command.

Currently there is one robotic dog, “Spot,” that can be leased by companies, but it is still  basic in terms of AI learning. It costs about the price of a car and you don’t even get to keep it. (Popular Mechanics)

Technology Review wrote,

But two other big challenges remain. First, the robot is currently too slow for practical use. Second, it needs to be far more resilient. All AI systems can go wrong, but military robots have to be reliable in life-and-death situations. These challenges will be tackled in a follow-on ARL program.

The Army’s work could have an impact in the wider world, the team believes. If autonomous robots can cope with complex real-world environments, work alongside humans, and take spoken instruction, they will have a myriad of uses, from industry and agriculture to the domestic front. 

Thus far, the humanoid robot “Atlas” is “able to take verbal instructions and interpret gestures. But it can also be controlled via a tablet and return data in the form of maps and images so the operator can see exactly what is behind the building, for example.” (Technology Review)

Atlas, the humanoid robot has AI software that understands verbal instructions, can carry out a task, and report back.

So please don’t panic if you see a killer robot video that shows one beating someone up in a warehouse. Corridor Digital created the videos with a clear parody for Boston Dynamics (note the bottom corner of the video says “Bosstown Dynamics”). It’s still scary when technology meets Science Fiction.