Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Robots on the Front Line

I'm working on an article about how robots can and more importantly, can not, be designed and programmed to function like humans. In anticipation of this, I've noticed that this week robots have been making headlines for their role in the war in Afghanistan. But while useful, robots are no replacement for the ingenuity, decision making, and critical thinking capabilities of real, human soldiers.

If the war in Afghanistan was fought with light sabers, aliens, and Samuel L. Jackson I think the conflict would be over by now. But alas, the light sabers, aliens and Jedi warriors of Star Wars are figments of a time long long ago in a galaxy far far away. But what about the battle droids seen in the video? A robot war sounds like something you could only see on the silver screen, but new technology being implemented in the Afghan war may be the FIRST STEP (note: ONLY a first step) toward a real conflict that is decided by robotic prowess.

According to U.S. Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, project manager for the joint project office for robotic systems (hows that for an example of a ridiculous round-about government-given title,) there are more than 2,000 ground robots assisting U.S. troops in the war in Afghanistan. But, while it might be fun to evoke the imagery of the battle droid, engaged in an epic fight, REAL robots serve a very different function.

When we talk about the United States' "robot ground troops" we are essentially talking about computers that can identify bombs and other dangers. The robots do this in one of two ways A: with a combination of sensors and imaging equipment that relays to the human troops that there is a bomb present , or B: by going into an area ahead of the human troops, so that if there is an explosion, the robot takes the hit instead of the humans. 

Robots are NOT running around in the desert wielding AK-47's, taking out the Taliban. Let me say that again, robots are NOT actively engaged in battle. They do not fight, at least not in the Star Wars battle droid sense. Instead, America's robot troops are just another tool in the technological arsenal that the U.S. uses to bolster the abilities of its human troops. 

Much of America's security and defense technology is classified, so we don't know EXACTLY what it is used for and how these robots accomplish their tasks. But we do know that they are successful enough for ground troops to be requesting the implementation of more robots. We also have access to some information about the use of robots in war-zones like the iRobot (yes, the makers of the Roomba vacuum) line of products. 

So while the battle droid only exists in a galaxy far far away, that's not to say that the robots in Afghanistan are not supremely cool and impressive. Take a look at this CNN report on the iRobot technology to see for yourself what our robot troops can do: 

1 comment:

  1. It's good to hear about the status of robots as of now. I've seen some incredible advances as far as detection goes and how engineers can code to interpret results. I thought the end was near when I saw this:

    As far as making human-like robots, Michio Kaku did a show on science channel talking about a.i. Basically, human brains compute information at a given bit-rate. Our computers are fast approaching that limit of computations per second, what is unknown is whether a robot will appear conscious if it hits that number.