Our fascination with robots stretches back centuries. The first references in literature of what we would classify as robots go all the way back to 1816 in the short story The Sandman by E T A Hoffman. However the first references of automatons can be found in the Book of Ezekiel (586BC) and the Iliad (710BC).
In recent years robots have been popularised by movies such as Star Wars with the much loved R2D2 & C3-PO, Sonny in I, Robot (loosely based on the Isaac Asimov short story) and most recently the Neill Blomkamp movie Chappie in which a robot develops emotions and, essentially, free will.
All three movie franchises depict a future (or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) in which robots walk amongst us performing any number of tasks that humanity has deemed beneath them. For many it’s the nightmare scenario: autonomous artificially intelligent constructs thinking for themselves and, more to the point, thinking on our behalf.
I, Robot and the renowned Terminator movies both tell tales of artificial intelligence determining we are a risk to ourselves and the planet and attempt to wipe humanity out. A fate that Stephen Hawking and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk want to avoid. They, along with hundreds of leading scientists and researchers are calling for a ban on all military based AI projects ranging from weapons to AI constructs. They may be locking the gate after Legged Squad Support System has bolted.
The Legged Squad Support System, or LS3, built by leading robotics firm Boston Dynamics is currently being tested by the US Marine Corp. The LS3 will occupy a support role, capable carrying up to 400 lbs of equipment plus fuel for a 20 mile mission lasting 24 hours.
The LS3 is capable of following its unit leader using computer vision and uses terrain sensing technology and GPS to find its way to pre-loaded locations such as extraction points. What Stephen Hawking and others’ concern is that constructs like the LS3 could be weaponised and used to devastating effect.
The big fear is that warfare waged by robots will remove the risk and make it all too easy to deploy soldiers when in recent decades significant loss of life has allowed diplomacy to prevail. There are also concerns that targeting parameters will be too restrictive resulting in civilians or friendly human units being targeted because they fit a set and locked set of criteria. Essentially it would make war as casual and removed for generals and world leaders as watching it on the news. Death without consequence. Victory without risk.
Aside from the threat of, to use the cliche, a robot uprising are we crossing a moral line that it'll be impossible to come back from? The wealthiset nations - the ones developing the robots - will be able to produce essentially fire and forget armies. Soldiers that are cheaper to build and programme than to train. Intelligent robotics could well be the third revolution of warfare after all.
Whatever the future may hold for robots on the battlefield, it seems that they will be an increasingly common part of our lives within years not decades according to industry leaders, the technology exists.
The reality is that we’ve been using robots in some form or another for years. Bomb disposal, close in weapon systems and even automated sentries but researchers are expected to take a huge robotic leap forward following DARPA’s (Defence Advanced Research Project Agency) latest robotics challenge back in June.
South Korea’s Team Kaist won the $2million prize with a bipedal robot called DRC-HUBO. To net the prize the roboto had to complete a variety of challenges including getting into a car and driving it away. Two years ago DARPA unveiled the ATLAS disaster response robot built by Boston Dynamics. It has 28 hydraulically actuated degrees of freedom and is capable of navigating and decision making its way through difficult and hostile terrain like any human. But with added advantage that it won’t injure itself in the process.
The progress is profound. But what it has highlighted is how far behind the UK is in mechatronics. We certainly have the talent and without question the capacity for low volume, high integrity engineering projects but the funding simply isn’t there.
Our investment in unmanned air, land and sea vehicles is well documented. Our drone activities in the Middle East are subject of public record as is the Royal Navy’s intention to develop drones for long term sea based reconnaissance but broadly that is the extent of our progress in to artificial intelligence.
There was a time when Britain had a reputation for heavy industry and ponderous, bludgeoning approaches to technology, engineering, defence and innovation as a whole. But in recent years we have become world leaders in some of the fastest growing, most dynamic fields in the world. We have always been innovators and we possess the talent. All we can hope is that as interest grows organisations like Innovate UK will begin to invest so the UK can catch up with the US, Japan and South Korea.