Robots are increasingly being sent into warfare instead of soldiers, but what of the ethical questions it raises?
The image of killer robots hunting down humans has been a sci-fi staple for decades but this week, Britain's Minister of Defence released an internal study that looked at the growing use of unmanned systems and warned of an incremental journey to a Terminator-like reality. With computers and robotics growing ever more powerful, could we be really heading towards our first robot war. Dateline's Aaron Lewis has been in search of the truth about the military's newest recruits.
REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
It's a corridor from a science fiction film, with a robot butler to meet me - except this isn't science fiction, it's the iRobot Development Laboratory in Boston, Massachusetts.
JOE DYER, IROBOT, MANAGING DIRECTOR: We call this the hall of cool stuff. It really is cool stuff.
Joe Dyer is iRobot's Managing Director and this is one of the company's most famous robots, called it's called a "œPackbot" and it's far from a laboratory toy;.this particular unit is nicknamed Scooby- Doo, was used for disarming roadside bombs in Iraq before it was destroyed;.
JOE DYER: You can see that the robot was used for 17counter IED missions, so this robot was a very productive robot until the bad guys finally got him. If your not fielding you are failing, if your not putting the robots out into the real world to do real work, you are not doing the right things.
Pakbots like Scooby-Doo and other unmanned systems - as the military calls them - are changing the name of warfare, they currently perform dirty and dangerous jobs, like disarming bombs. But they'll soon provide commanders with undreamt of capabilities.
This one called the Jambot is being designed to literally ooze into places that a solid robot couldn't reach. There are also robot swarms being created, programmed to follow each other like ants or a flock of birds.
JOE DYER: Today they can see, they can touch, they can move, they can navigate, they can talk in multiple languages. Down at the University of Marylands, just north of Washington, they are building the capabilities for robots to smell.
Military robot numbers are increasing dramatically according to authorP.W. Singer, who is one of the worlds leading experts on 21st century battle.
P.W. SINGER, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The US forces that went into Iraq in 2003 had a handful of drones supporting it - these pilot-less planes -unmanned aerial systems are what they are officially called - we had a handful - we now have over 7000 in the US military infantry - the ground forces had ZERO - and we now have 12000. In fact, there was a report just yesterday that one out of every 50 soldiers is a robot now.
That transformation hasn't come easily, it's taken a lot of hard work by the robotics industry to prove itself.
STEVE REID, AAI CORPORATION: A number of years ago, I would say our technology was tolerated on the battlefield. We were somewhat unreliable. It was sort of a new gimmick that Washington said we ought to take to battle with us, things like that. It launches similar to the shadow launcher, you can see the sled that the aircraft rides in.
Steve Reid works for AAI Systems, a leading maker of unmanned aircraft. Their shadow drone has flown hundreds of hours of combat hours. One of AAI's earliest aircraft was the first robot to ever have a human surrender to it, shown here as Iraqi soldiers waved down a drone with white flags at the end of Operation Desert Storm.
STEVE REID: We had not yet earnt our stripes on the battlefield, but certainly over the last five years, now we are demand to be on the battlefield. Some of our US army customers have told us they won't go outside of their fixed operating base on a raid without an unmanned air vehicle asset overhead.
The appeal of robot soldiers is obvious, the makers of this one, known as Talon, say it gives soldiers unprecedented tactical patience.
BOB QUINN, QINETIQ: Tacticle patience means when an armed robot is facing the enemy and is clearly visible, it will - the whole intent of that armed robot is to get shot.
The Talon is so robust, that it's usually blown up 13 times before it's destroyed beyond repair. That's 13 soldiers not lost in combat.
BOB QUINN: It's our youngest soldiers, and those closest to the fight that have such a pull for this kind of technology, they know it can be useful, they know it will save their lives, and that's what they talk about, they talk about "It's going to save my life."
But the other secret to the robot's speedy integration has been their ease of use. Many of today's robots are driven with an off-the-shelf video game controller, making it so easy even a journalist can do it.
JOE DYER: We made a fundamental change to our robots four or five years ago where we went to a game controller and immediately we solved the training time greatly reduce, the sophistication greatly increased, and we saw those thousands of hours that teenagers and young adults spend gaming directly applicable to unmanned systems operations.
REPORTER: Can I have one?
Those advantages have seen tele-operated robots spread far and wide. There are now remote controlled drones not just in the air, but on the ground and in the sea. But the video game-like nature of the technology has many concerned that we are entering a new and inhuman phase of warfare.
P.W. SINGER: Always in history, well before video games, where you were talking about the very first guns to strategic bombing campaigns in World War II, it's always been understood that the more you could create distance from the target, the easier the shooter would find it. Then you layer on top of it a digital native that has grown up playing video games, and now they are interfaced with war may be the same video game experience that a lot of people are concerned as to what happens next and we honestly don't know, because we are entering a space we haven't done before. We have no data.
What happens next could be this? Qinetiq, North America, in Massachusetts, has been developing armed ground robots for years, this robot, known as Maars can not only rove around a battlefield it can fire on any target it finds - remotely controlled by a soldier from a safe vantage point.
BOB QUINN: Because the weapon system is a stationary robot, there's no breathing, or movement of the weapon, there's precise control of the trigger, more precise than a human can have and with the tactical patience, soldiers are instant marksmen.
So far military robots like these haven't had the capacity to act or even move by themselves. No autonomy as it's called but that is starting to change.
BOB QUINN: Soldiers are now telling us that they are willing to accept incremental autonomy, they want to do the mission, but when the mission is over they want to push a button or use their voice and say "Come on back", and then they can start putting it away and have the confidence that the robot will get from point A to B without their intervention. Incremental autonomy is moving forward with those user requests.
Autonomy is the most controversial word in robotics today, currently it most often means that a robot can find its way back to base or find a target on its own, but even that is changing.
REPORTER: Do you think we are close to having robot warfare.
DAVID KILCULLEN, DEFENCE CONSULTANT: We certainly have some of the technical capabilities in place.
David Kilcullen is a leading defence consultant who has advised the Bush and Obama Administration on military strategy.
DAVID KILCULLEN: There's a whole other class of systems that is emerging now which are autonomous or semiautonomous so that the machine itself can decide "I'm going to shoot", and there's no human there making a decision. I think that's a pretty freakish idea, that you can have robot warfare that is distinct from remote control warfare.
P.W. SINGER: We all think of automatically of something like the Terminator movie, yes we are using robotics at war, but no they are not like the Terminator out there walking, making all their own decisions, ready to take over at a moment's notice.
This is the kind of nightmare scenario conjured up by robot warfare. For decades Hollywood films of the Terminator have played on our fears of autonomous killing machines, the robotics industry insists this is nothing like the reality.
JOE DYER: Robots today can do more than and less than the public thinks. They are typically depicted as of - in unflattering ways too often. In a surreal contrast, by the way, to the way robots are serving for real today.
Few industry observers believe that the current generation of ground robots are precursors to Terminator-style wars. Even so many are disturbed by some of their capabilities.
P.W. SINGER: Not only can it turn a machine gun into a sniper rifle it can also hit an apple at 800 metres distance The problem though, from sort of an ethical moral standpoint is that the machine may be able to hit that target at that distance, but it can't tell the difference between an apple and a tomato that any human two year old can naturally see the difference between them. So then apply that over to not only telling the difference between an apple and a tomato - but to the very difficult distinctions a soldier must make in the field - "is that an insurgent or a shop keeper? Is that a child or a child soldier?"
The reality is that there are currently no armed robots in service that can fire without a human issuing the order but that is no longer due to technological limitations - it's now a question of policy.
BOB QUINN: The technology that is currently available and demonstrated at military bases throughout the world far exceeds commander's willingness to use it on a battlefield because it is so new and so different, and they are uncertain about what if something goes wrong.
Whether or not the robots are making decisions on their own, they are already changing the decision making of war planners and potentially making hostile acts more likely.
DAVID KILCULLEN: I do think the fact that you are not putting a human being at risk by sending an uninhabited system into harm's way. By its very nature will make it easier for people to think "Well, let's send in a drone and see what happens".
P.W. SINGER: The US has conducted more air strikes into Pakistan in the last couple of years with unmanned systems, than we did with manned systems in the Kosovo War just a decade ago. Interestingly enough we don't call it a war, so this technology changes the way we looked at what we use to see as a war.
The changing face of war was on display last month in Australia. For the first time the Avalon Air Show in Victoria included a conference on unmanned aerial vehicles and it attracted plenty of attention from the military. The Australian Defence Force declined Dateline's request for an interview on the subject, but they already have unmanned air, sea and land systems worth close to $200 million, with plans for another billion dollars to be spent over the next decade.
BOB QUINN: Australia actually has a substantial background in these kinds of platforms, going back 50 years, so we actually have a pretty substantial national interest in this kind of technology.
Colonel Robert Sova of the U.S. Army insists soldiers will remain the decision makers in the field, directing the work of robots.
COLONEL ROBERT SOVA, US ARMY: Certainly the army's UAS strategy, the Department of Defence strategy is part of that - is that this is not a replacement for manned systems. Its complimentary - to have unmanned and manned systems working together to give a greater capability to the war-fighters.
The emergence of robots in warfare is going to be as game changing as the invention of the tank or the atomic bomb. Some believe there's a short window of opportunity, replacing limits on how powerful and how autonomous we allow these tools to become.
BOB QUINN: I think it's very, very important that we achieve an international consensus on what is acceptable. I also think it's an obligation on military planners, technology people and policy makers that if you are going to bring on a new technology you owe it to yourself and everybody else to think it through carefully.
MARK DAVIS: And last week saw what appears to be the first incident of so-called friendly fire from an unmanned drone. Two American servicemen were reportedly killed by a missile fired from a predator aircraft in Afghanistan. If you'd like to know more about the future of military robots, go to our website, where there's links on the companies and experts featured in Aaron's report.
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24th April 2011