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Officials in Seoul, Korea have recently earmarked the equivalent of $32.4 million dollars to develop a next-generation robot for use in combat situations. These insect-like automatons are intended to be bristling with weapons, and will fight alongside humans soldiers either under remote control, or guided by their built-in artificial intelligence. What this means is that if these robots become a reality, their software will be entrusted with life-or-death decisions on the battlefield.

Although South Korea’s will be the first armed combat robots to be operated by artificial intelligence, they won’t be the first to carry weapons. Weaponized flying drones, also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have been used by the United States military since the U.S. Air Force fitted their RQ-1 Predator drones with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles in 1995. Nowadays, armed UAVs are common, including some with laser-guided weapons such as the Viper Strike. But these drones will not fire without an explicit order from a human controller… for now.

The robotics company iRobot, famous for their Roomba automated vacuum cleaner, develops a number of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) for the U.S., such as their PackBot Explorer which can explore dangerous areas without risking soldiers’ lives. They also have robots designed to tote heavy loads in combat situations, such as ammunition and support equipment. For these purposes, robots are perfectly suited, and have proven invaluable in recent combat situations.

Earlier this year, the U.S. put some of their new armed Talon robots into duty. These twin-tread remote-controlled robots can carry any one of a number of weapons, including the M16, 50-caliber machine guns, or the M202-A1 with a 6mm rocket launcher. Such robots can also be fitted with “disruptor” guns that can disable enemy bombs and mines. A remote operator uses a twin-joystick interface to guide the robot and its weapons from up to a kilometer away, depending on terrain. Technology like this makes one wonder if basement-dwelling computer gamers will become a military force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

From the Wired article:

“This opens up great vistas, some quite pleasant, others quite nightmarish. On the one hand, this could make our flesh-and-blood soldiers so hard to get to that traditional war — a match of relatively evenly matched peers — could become a thing of the past,” he said. “But this might also rob us of our humanity. We could be the ones that wind up looking like Terminators, in the world’s eyes.”

Also on the military robot horizon is the Robotic Extraction Vehicle (or “REV” to the Acronym-Loving U.S. Military (ALUSM)). This armored, self-navigating ambulance is being developed to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to field hospitals in record time. No doubt this will act as a stop-gap until a self-navigating robot repair truck can be developed to maintain armies of artificially-intelligent robot soldiers in the field, after which point the expensive and fragile human soldiers can be phased out.

So far, these wireless robots have only seen action against relatively low-tech enemies, but it makes one wonder what might happen should the need arise to battle a foe who has the technological resources and know-how to turn these robots on their masters. Should the signal’s encryption be broken, a compliment of armed, remote-controlled robots inside a defended area could quickly become a dangerous liability under the control of an enemy.

One thing is certain… few events push the envelope of technology as effectively as war. I will refrain from commenting on the bleakness of that remark.

Korea Times article
Wired article
Military.com article