Ravi Mohan's Blog

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Robotics and the future of warfare

I was speaking to one of my friends doing research in robotics in a major American university when it struck me that most of the researchers in robotics and machine learning are gentle pacifists who wouldn't want to hurt a fly, while one of the greatest uses of robots is going to be in real battlefields.

And I am not talking about robots engaging in non lethal activities like scouting or mine clearing, though that's how robots will initially appear on the battlefield. I am talking of robots (on land ,sea and air) armed with guns and other weaponry and increasingly deciding for themselves when to fire and what to fire at.

I believe that in wars of the future two major features will be asymmetrical war (what we call "insurgency" -blurring the boundaries between "civilians" and "soldiers") and increased participation by increasingly sophisticated autonomous robots/remote control weapons. (see this column for some thinking along these lines). I'll ignore the first aspect and focus on the second, in the interests of keeping the size of this post manageable.

Here is how robotics will develop in war. First, robots will engage in non lethal activities like mine clearing or I.E.D detection. (This is happening today) Then you'll see them accompany human combat units as augmenters and enablers on real battle fields. (This is beginning to happen) As robotics gets more and more sophisticated, they will take up potentially lethal but non combat operations like patrolling camp perimeters or no fly areas, and open fire only when "provoked" (This is beginning to happen too). The final stage will be when robotic weapons are an integral part of the battlefield, just like "normal", human controlled machines are today and make autonomous or near autonomous combat decisions. These robots will look nothing like the vaguely humanoid robots of Star Wars - they will have shapes suited to their roles - think tiny dragon fly / cockroach like systems to computerized tanks and helicopters.

And this type of robotic battle system will not be confined to the major superpowers. As of today, what gives robots an edge is not really dependent on hardware, but on sophisticated software, something that does not depend on superpower status. Someone in Korea or India or China, or even a semi military corporation can gain a temporary edge in robotics software comparatively easily (though the Red Queen Effect will kick in soon enough to close the gaps) sufficient to tip a battle or a war one way or another.

The funny thing is that quite a bit of the required technology is available, sometimes in embryonic form, today. "The future is here, just not widely distributed" - as William Gibson said. I know that the Indian defense forces have made substantial progress in battle field robotics systems (I can't be more specific - the details are classified so don't ask! :-D ), and what India is on the verge of doing, others are, too.

None of this is to claim that future combat will occur between machines, all clinical and detached with no blood being spilled. On the contrary.

Historically, every innovation in technology has been hailed as bringing in an era of bloodless warfare. When the airplane was invented, for example, many columns were written on how they made war obsolete because, obviously, with planes roaming the sky no army could make unobserved movements and so war was now futile! Dresden and the Blitz and Hiroshima were just around the corner.

My prediction is that war will become more lethal, with increasingly sophisticated autonomous weapons systems and ever more vicious asymmetrical warfare twisting the business of making "the other fellow die for his country" (or ideology or religion or ...) into newer and ever more horrific forms. And that is something that all of us working on robotics or machine learning should think about.

Update: First Armed Robots deployed in Iraq . While these are not really autonomous systems (they are remote controlled) and substantial technical challenges remain on the path to truly autonomous systems, people conducting research in robotics know how fast these barriers are falling. Those who are not researchers in robotics/ai may mull over the progress in autonomous navigation of vehicles from 2004 to 2007 as exemplified by the DARPA Grand Challenge. Now extend that rate of progress to areas other than navigation.


Anonymous said...

Aho my friend ..

Nice thoughts

I always wonder when "Cyberdyne Systems Model 101" will come knocking on my door ...

Some day soon I hope ...

Click, Click ...

Kiran Bellubbi said...

Ravi, this was quite a useful article to understand the scope of the current robotics systems in the military... so Thanks.

An anecdotal story that comes to my mind was being part of a graduate discussion on "healing mines" at CMU, one of the graduates was talking about his first year in the program and how at first he had thought this actually had something to do with "healing", ie. maybe mine removal from a land mine infested area etc. Very very soon he realized that this was more to do with inflicting maximum damage using the fewest mines - the mines apparently are talking to each other and relaying information from sensors etc. - F@#@%*# HELL!!!

The moral of my story is research funded by the government generally is packaged in absolutely lovely, feel-good names to fool the politicos who rarely read more than the name of the program being funded.

Ravi said...

any day now ;-)

nice anecdote!

I don't have any problems with robotics being used for war. Any technology invented by mankind gets used for war some way or the other.

I was just pointing out that most people who work in robotics seem unaware of this potential and that sruck me as a bit naive.

Jnaneshwar said...

Interesting post Ravi. It reminded me of this book :)

We often discuss about this in our lab. Although as teenagers we admired the "Terminator" and other mean bots, most of us wouldn't want robots for destruction in the real world. Yes, we are Asimovians :) However, like you pointed out, a major chunk of technological development in robotics like any other field is and will be driven by the needs of war.

The interesting fact is, the two big sources of research funding in the US are DARPA and NSF. DARPA's primary goal is obvious, whereas NSF puts in a lot of money into environmental sciences. I work on networked robots funded by NSF for environmental monitoring, early warning of microbial activities in sea etc, whereas just across the corridor, my friend works on DARPA funded legged robots which are learning to walk on rough terrain.

At the end of the day the technology is the same, whatever the application. But I agree, robots for warfare have a bigger impact on our collective imagination.

Ravi said...

"I work on networked robots funded by NSF for environmental monitoring, early warning of microbial activities in sea etc, whereas just across the corridor, my friend works on DARPA funded legged robots which are learning to walk on rough terrain."

aaarggh!!! I am so jealous !!

I want to be funded to do cool things too .

:-D :-D

Jnaneshwar said...

"I want to be funded to do cool things too waaaaa!!!!! "

You will my friend, you will. And I can clearly see which camp you will join! :p

Ravi, you are a Sith Lord. :)

Ravi said...

"Ravi, you are a Sith Lord. :)"

and the Sith don't cry ! (sniff!).

But I really don't want to build robots dedicated to destruction, given a choice. But I am not really very dogmatic on this point.

I guess Robots are just "the weapons of the day". Trying to avoid this is like teh Pope banning the crossbow as a "cruel and devilish" weapon. The advantages over the long bow were too great to ignore.

It is hard to make progress in robotics without accelerating the induction of robots into war. Nothing to be done about that really.

Jnaneshwar said...

'Trying to avoid this is like teh Pope banning the crossbow as a "cruel and devilish" weapon'

LOL! :)

'I guess Robots are just "the weapons of the day".'

I agree. Whatever keeps the money pouring in! ;)

Darius Damalakas said...

Tomorrow starts today