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Army robot

Past robots show significance of the Navy's breakthrough

It was interesting to see that the X-47B, a military stealth drone, was undergoing sea trials onboard the USS Harry Truman. If successful, it will be the first robot to be able to launch itself and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier without human help. It could also become the first true robot in military service.

Most of the emerging robotic technology developments in the military involve something other than a true robot. Instead, we have lots of hybrid human and robot partnerships.

A true robot is generally defined as a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. So a bomb technician driving a machine to its destination and destroying some ordnance isn’t really using a robot -- he is using a Waldo, a term created by Robert A. Heinlein for a robot-like creature that is manipulated solely by a human.

My point is that the development of actual robots really is something special. Most robots are as dumb as a bag of rocks.

Case in point, about 10 years ago at the Comdex Computer Show, I was able to attend an event where real autonomous robots were put head to head in an arena to fight to the “death.” I thought it was going to be like the “Robot Wars” TV show,  where metallic creatures fought each other to the delight of screaming fans. The difference was that on the TV show, the contestants drove their warriors. They were little more than weaponized RC cars. At the event I attended, the robots had to rely on their programming without any human help, thinking for themselves when fighting their opponents.

The fight was surprisingly boring. Each of the three robots in the arena was designed to scan its opponents and attack when it detected an optimal window, one where it could do the most harm while not taking any damage in return. Things looked promising when the saw blades started spinning and the pneumatic hammer on one robot thumped the ground like Thor getting ready to crush some heads.

But then something odd happened.… nothing. The robots rushed up to one another and just stood there. Occasionally one would twitch or back up a few feet, which would provoke similar reactions in the others. But none of them ever attacked. They couldn’t find the optimal time to do so.

One of the people running the event was standing nearby. After about 15 minutes of this boredom, I heard him talking about going into the ring and trying to get something moving. Ultimately, he wisely decided against walking into a battle pit filled with active, autonomous killer robots and trying to kick one. They probably didn’t know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, after all. I think he would have lost a limb at the very least, and might have scored the top spot of all time in the annual Darwin Awards. Getting crushed by killer robots before a live crowd would have been hard to beat. The only downside is that YouTube hadn’t been invented yet.

That event made me acutely aware of the difference between a true robot and the kind I had seen on TV. Developments in the field of true robotics are impressive, which is why we should be in awe of the X-47B. Taking off, performing a mission and returning without human help is incredible. It raises new possibilities for what could come next.

Posted by John Breeden II on Dec 13, 2012 at 9:39 AM


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