SWORDS - First Robots To Break Asimov's First Law Of Robotics

Update 13-Apr-2008 It appears that the SWORDS robots will not see combat operations in Iraq. Ironically, in view of the criticism of this article, it appears that "autonomous" (in the sense of unplanned or mistaken) behavior is exactly what the military fears from this "robot" - see SWORDS Robots Pulled From Iraq For Bad Behavior. End update.

(Note to readers: as I pointed out in the article (and the comments), these devices are not autonomous. For some, this would disqualify them from being true robots. However, the military and the manufacturer both refer to the SWORDS device as a robot, and it certainly fits common usage. The word "robot" comes from the Czech robota (from Capek's play R.U.R.) meaning "forced labor" or "drudgery." This device surely does an unpleasant task usually done by a person. Also, consider that, strictly speaking, an autonomous cruise missile is a self-guided machine, and is therefore a "robot" although most people wouldn't think of it that way.

If you think that fully autonomous killing robots are a decade away, take a look at a home-brew device that really does pick out a target and shoot to kill all by itself; see the Robotic Sentry Gun from USMechatronics.

For me, the bottom line on this article is that SWORDS is a machine that is sent to stand in the place of a man and kill people.)

Next month [February, 2005], the US Army will be putting robot soldiers in the field in Iraq. The SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems) robots are fully armed; when the human operator verifies that a suitable target is within sight, it fires. They are equipped with either the M249 (which fires 5.56-millimeter rounds at 750 rounds per minute) or the M240 (which fires 7.62-millimeter rounds at up to 1,000 per minute).

These robots are poised be the first working robots that are actually designed to break Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics:

"A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

(From Robot Soldier)

The three-foot tall bots are not autonomous killing machines; they are modified Talon robots that have been used by the military for at least four years. SWORD robots are more accurate than human soldiers; the gun is mounted on a stable platform and fired electronically, eliminating trigger recoil, anticipation problems and timing the breathing cycle when firing. At present, the SWORD robot is operated with a thirty-pound control unit with two joysticks, buttons and a video screen.

According to Bob Quinn, general manager of Talon robots for Foster-Miller, Inc., this control system may be replaced with a "Gameboy" type of controller hooked up to virtual reality goggles.

The SWORDS robot is described as a "bootstrapped" effort, retrofitting weapons onto an existing platform. The military is still a long way from the Tactical Autonomous Combatant (TAC) described in a Project Alpha study "Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop"; TAC robots are seen as being faster and more lethal than human soldiers, and able to work in more hazardous environments. This study, which was done in 2003, saw TACs as a reality by 2025.

Read more at Army Prepares Robo-Soldier" for Iraq and Robotics to play major role in future warfighting.

Update Mar-15-2006: Here's a copy of a note that I posted to Slashdot about this article:

Thanks for reading the source story. As someone noted (and as I made clear in the first few lines of the article), this is last year's story, and the devices in question are not what purists would call true robots. So, yes, I understood that these devices are essentially sophisticated radio-controlled toys - with real guns.

When I first read about the SWORDS device, the first thing that struck me was "My God, they've made a robot that stands in a man's place, and kills people." I'd read Asimov many years earlier, but the "I, Robot" film had just come out, and I was really struck by the difference between Asimov's desire to make robots that existed to help people versus the military's desire to make machines that would preserve the lives of our troops while assisting with necessary (dangerous) work in Iraq.

The "Three Laws of Robotics" were one smart guy's attempt to create a set of protocols that would ensure that autonomous robots would not be able to cause harm. The first "law" says it all: "A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

I think that, in the minds of most people, these are robots, and they are certainly part of the development process that will lead to autonomous killing machines. I describe this briefly in the article, and then provide links to show what the military is planning for the future.

So, in retrospect, I'd have to say I jumped the gun in describing this as a case of a robot that "intentionally" harms people. However, despite the fact that the SWORDS devices are not true, autonomous robots with "positronic brains," they are still machines that stand in a soldier's place, and kill. And remember, these are just early prototypes of what the military really wants. Science fiction lets us explore in imagination what we might want to do (or what we might want to avoid) in reality. The military's plan is clear; if you want to object to autonomous killing machines, now's the time.

Bill Christensen Technovelgy.com

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