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Beware of military robots coming to an area near you

MagicrobotA competition has been launched to create intelligent robots whose aim is to seek and destroy, writes Will Mooney.

14 November 2010

It reads like the plot of a straight-to-DVD sci-fi flick, something like Robocop vs Terminator: a secretive government military agency announces a competition with a cash prize of one million dollars to develop a team of “intelligent” robots that can scan unfamiliar environments, identify “threats” and “neutralise” targets, as well as interacting with other robots, without the assistance of a human pilot.

Defence companies and mad scientists from around the globe rush to develop their robots and vie for the lucrative prize money. Meanwhile, at an “undisclosed” location, a simulated urban environment, complete with moving human “targets” is prepared for the grand robot showdown.

Sound absurd? Wondering how anyone’s going to pull together the cash to produce such a lame movie? Well wonder no more because the Multi Autonomous Ground Robotic International Challenge (MAGIC) is far from a farcical fiction, it is a frightening reality.

And, Australia’s very own “defence state”, South Australia, is set to proudly host the Grand Robot Death Match in a secret “simulated urban area” this November.

MAGIC is the twisted brainchild of the US Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command and the Australian Government’s Defence Science & Technology Organisation.

In an apparent masterstroke of outsourcing, the organizations have received twenty entries, including several from Australia, for the competition which aims to determine whether “autonomous multi-robot collaboration” is feasible in a battlefield context.

The lucky winning team could then be recruited for “advanced capability and technology demonstration programs” with the Pentagon. Kind of like a deadly robotic version of Master Chef.

According to The Australian’s defence lift-out, the US is seeking more and better robots to deploy in its wars in the Middle East and...well, probably wherever it feels like. They claim the robots would be used to manage the threats of terrorism and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are used with ruthless efficiency by counter-invasion forces in the Middle East.

No doubt, these benevolent, thoughtful robots will be put to work defending the front lines of freedom.

But there are worrying suggestions about their future application.

This new generation of robot soldiers could, it has been suggested, be deployed in “civilian emergency situation” as well as military operations.

It is also telling that moving human targets will be employed in the “dynamic” simulated urban testing ground.

While the robots will only use laser signals to “paint” and thus neutralise the targets, this “painting” simulates “marking a target for artillery fire or drone strikes.”

It has even been suggested that, once these robots are “intelligent enough to work in tandem, and on their own”, the door could be open to “larger forms of swarm robotics.” Yay!

The human and ethical implications arising from the emergence of this coordinated robotic military hardware are obvious and frightening.

While human soldiers can operate mechanically and have been known to perpetrate horrendous crimes in war-time situations, there are at least some restraints imposed by the reality of shared flesh and blood.

Robots don’t have these qualms. Neither do they have the responsibility or accountability (albeit shaky) of a human agent.

Who will be accountable when a “swarm” of “autonomous” robots accidently bombs a civilian target?

These kinds of exercises reveal the very real possibility of a future in which citizens, civilians and soldiers could be subject to the remorseless logic of authoritarian machines with a license to kill.

The concocted visions of our collective sci-fi future may not be so far fetched.

Will Mooney is a Tasmanian writer, particularly interested in history and forests, but sometimes ventures into the obscure and absurd.

This article was originally published in Wai Quarterly.

Image: Australian Government Defence Science and Technology Organisation.


0 #1 Michael Wood 2010-11-23 16:35
Technology has come far and has a long way to go.
There will probably always be human conflict, as different peoples believe justice comes in different forms, and dictatorships still exist.

Given this, these robots are a natural progression.
A soldier would not be accused of a crime if he (usually he) shot and killed a non-combatant with something that looks like an assault rifle during a battle while this non-combatant is near a group of combatants. Who's to say these autonomous robots couldn't do a better job in determining whether it is real or not?

I'm not holding my breath, but let's wait until we see results, and then we can judge.

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