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For a fallen robot, a 21-gun salute

New research suggests that soldiers treat their robots much like they do their fellow soldiers. The research raises new questions about how to ensure than robots are used safely and ethically in combat.

By Contributor / September 23, 2013

PackBots, like the one pictured here, are among the US military's most useful robots. Now, new research reports that soldiers may develop feelings for them.

Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor


They have served the United States in combat, and they have been lost in combat. They have been awarded Purple Hearts and memorialized with 21-gun salutes. They have been eulogized, mourned, and missed.

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They are, of course, the US military’s robots.

American soldiers are becoming attached to their electronic comrades, according to a new report from a researcher at the University of Washington,  – and that behavior reignites a question about how human attachment to robots might influence decisions on a battlefield.

In interviews with 23 Explosive Ordnance Disposal military personnel (one woman and 22 men), researcher Julie Carpenter found that soldiers reported unfettered willingness to send their robots into minefields – but also named their robots after wives and girlfriends and felt loss when those robots didn’t make it back to base. While not generalizable to the entire military, given the small sample size, Dr. Carpenter says that the results suggest that more research is needed on how robots and humans mix. That’s especially true as robots increasingly fill the US military’s ranks, and as the military develops new, more anthropomorphic robot designs, she says.

Carpenter’s research, which will be published on ProQuest as her PhD dissertation, is not the first scientific study about how soldiers feel about their robots.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been large-scale deployments of battle robots such as TALON and  Packbot, a small, portable robot with tractor treads and a video camera that can be used to survey a building for foes or detonate an improvised explosive device (IED). In 2007, the Washington Post reported that the robots scooting though booby-trapped cities, supplanting the humans that once had to do that job, were not going unappreciated – soldiers had begun to care for them, sometimes quite a bit. Ted Bogosh, then a master sergeant and a repairman for the Marines in Baghdad, told the Post that one soldier in his shop had became distraught when told that his robot, “Scooby Doo,” was not salvageable. The soldier would not accept a replacement robot.

The anecdote was also repeated in a 2009 LiveScience profile of Peter Singer, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution and the author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."

In the latest research, the interviewed soldiers said that they had no qualms about sending their robots onto the battlefield. But there was a potential hitch: the soldiers often named their robots after a girlfriend or wife. One soldier told Carpenter that his robot, riding along with him in his jeep and resting next to him as he slept really did feel a bit like his girlfriend, Carpenter says. None of the robots were named after ex-girlfriends, Carpenter says.


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