October 23, 2008
The Pentagon has put out a request to contractors to develop teams of robots that can search for, detect and track “non-cooperative” humans in “pursuit/evasion scenarios”.
The request, which can be read on the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program website here, calls for a “Multi-Robot Pursuit System” to be operated by one person.
The proposal describes the need to " …develop a software/hardware suit that would enable a multi-robot team, together with a human operator, to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject.
The main research task will involve determining the movements of the robot team through the environment to maximize the opportunity to find the subject, while minimizing the chances of missing the subject. If the operator is an active member of the search team, the software should minimize the chance that the operator may encounter the subject.”
It is seemingly important to the Pentagon that the operator should not have to come into contact with the person being chased down by the machines.
The description continues:
“The software should maintain awareness of line-of-sight, as well as communication and sensor limits. It will be necessary to determine an appropriate sensor suite that can reliably detect human presence and is suitable for implementation on small robotic platforms.”
Paul Marks at The New Scientist points out that given the propensity to adapt this kind of military style technology for domestic purposes such as crowd control, the proposal is somewhat concerning.
“…how long before we see packs of droids hunting down pesky demonstrators with paralysing weapons? Or could the packs even be lethally armed?” Marks asks.
Marks interviewed Steve Wright, an expert on police and military technologies, from Leeds Metropolitan University, who commented:
“The giveaway here is the phrase ‘a non-cooperative human subject’.
What we have here are the beginnings of something designed to enable robots to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs. Once the software is perfected we can reasonably anticipate that they will become autonomous and become armed.
We can also expect such systems to be equipped with human detection and tracking devices including sensors which detect human breath and the radio waves associated with a human heart beat. These are technologies already developed.”
Indeed, noted as PHASE III on the Pentagon proposal is the desire to have the robots developed to “intelligently and autonomously search”.
Earlier this year another top robotics expert, Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield, warned listeners to the Alex Jones show that the world may be sleepwalking into a potentially lethal technocracy and has called for safeguards on such technology to be put into place.
Professor Sharkey stated:
“If you have an autonomous robot then it’s going to make decisions who to kill, when to kill and where to kill them. The scary thing is that the reason this has to happen is because of mission complexity and also so that when there’s a problem with communications you can send a robot in with no communication and it will decide who to kill, and that is really worrying to me.”
The professor also warned that such autonomous weapons could easily be used in the future by law enforcement officials in cites, pointing out that South Korean authorities are already planning to have a fully armed autonomous robot police force in their cities.
Perhaps one candidate for the Pentagon’s “Multi-Robot Pursuit System” proposal is Boston Dynamics’ rather frightening BigDog (pictured above). The latest version of this hydraulic quadruped robot can carry up to 340lb load and recovers its balance even after sliding on ice and snow:
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