Of course, statements like this do not reassure everyone. Some forward-looking robotic expert have already called for more debate about the subject of autonomy. They point towards developments such as the SGR-A1, a gun-toting sentry robot, developed five years ago by Samsung Techwin Co for the South Korean government as a way to patrol the border between North and South Korea. The fixed robot uses pattern recognition software to spot humans and a machine gun if needed. Although the robot is designed to operate with human intervention, it is its autonomous mode that has caught ethicists’ attention as a possible precursor of future developments.
While some defense officials may downplay concerns about autonomy, Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is urging policymakers to think now about the implications of unmanned systems, which is already having profound implications. “From a geostrategic standpoint, it widens the scope of the battlefield - now it extends from the United States to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he says. “That is really new. “
But for the majority of those working in the field, “killer robots” are not on their radar. Instead, they say, military robots are likely to be used initially for jobs that are dangerous, but not involved in actually fighting enemy forces.
Already under development, for example, is a military humanoid robot that will fight fires on ships. The innocuously named Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or Saffir, actually looks suspiciously much like a skinless version of the Terminator, though its mission is much more peaceful.
Saffir, which is being developed by university researchers in cooperation with US navy scientists, is designed to fight fires on naval ships. But even these firefighting robots are being developed specifically to work with human counterparts, so a major focus of the work is on getting the robots to respond to human gestures and speech.
Another robot being designed to help human soldiers is the Bear (Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot), a humanoid robot with tracked legs. The Bear, built by Vecna Technologies, was initially funded by the US Army and designed to scoop up injured soldiers from the battlefield, transporting them to a safe area where they could receive medical assistance. The idea was that in the middle of a firefight it would be better to send in a robot to rescue a person, rather than another soldier who might get injured.
But Vecna Technologies's chief technology officer, Daniel Theobald says that the company now is focusing on other missions for its robotics work. “We quickly realized if we could build a robot that could rescue a wounded soldier, it would also be capable of a lot of other high value activities,” he says.
One of the missions the company has focused in on is logistics, or the idea of having robots move things from one place to another, or loading and unloading supplies. While not as glamorous perhaps as battlefield rescues, this sort of work is still critical to keeping human soldiers out of danger.
“A lot of time when soldiers get wounded, it’s because they are doing some other activity, and couldn’t keep their hands on their weapons,” says Theobald.
Moving supplies is also a mission envisaged for Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog, which has captured public attention for its eerily mammal-like movements. But like other robotic efforts, Big Dog’s road to autonomy is slow - its designers would like it to be able to sense objects or barriers on its own, for example, but it would ultimately be supervised by a human.
Indeed, in Afghanistan, for example, just moving things around has become a dangerous job, because it exposes troops on the ground to roadside bombs, which continues to be the leading cause of battlefield deaths there. Put robots in the place of the humans, and, at least in theory, lives would be saved.
Theobald says that when it comes to the battlefield, the first autonomous robots are likely going to be essentially deliverymen. “Let the soldiers do the fighting,” he says. “Moving things around, that’s something that the robots can do.”