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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.

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And some soldiers saw the robots as an extension of themselves or of the soldier manning it. Soldiers said that they could tell who was behind the robot’s remote based just on how the robot was moving, Carpenter says.

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“They’re very aware that the robot is a tool and that it’s not alive,” says Carpenter. “But there is this ambiguity in how they interact with the robot.”

“They go back and forth between calling it human-like, or animal-like, or simply a tool,” she said.

Following Carpenter’s research, first reported on the University of Washington webpage last week, military personnel have now turned to Reddit to share war stories of robots saved and robots lost.

In one shared tale, a soldier’s TALON robot slipped through a guardrail on a bridge over the Tigris River in Iraq. As it dangled from its chord above the water, the team sent its “little Packbot,” Danny DeVito, to rescue it. The TALON was pulled up and, since the robot's bridge jump happened around the time that the actor Owen Wilson reportedly attempted suicide (in 2007), the TALON was dubbed Owen Wilson.

“My Team Member also took him to mental health to get him checked out and hit on the gorgeous E-4 that worked over there,” said the soldier.

Another user said that his or her team in Taji, Iraq (near Baghdad), had sent off a ruined robot with a 21-salute funeral and a Purple Heart. Robots, the user said, “can develop a personality, and they save so many lives.”  Meanwhile, another commentator mourned the loss of “Boomer,” so named because “he” scouted bombs. “Boomer” was also destroyed in Iraq, taken “from this world far too early,” the commentator said.

That soldiers do care for their robots suggests that soldiers might make unconscious decisions on the battlefield on the basis of those feelings, Carpenter says. For example, if a soldier calls a robot after his wife, will he or she be willing to sacrifice just as much to save it as he or she would to save a spouse?

And that’s all the more possible as robots get anthropomorphic or animalistic makeovers, she says. Arguably, the military’s current robots don't necessarily invite warm, fuzzy feelings. Packbots, of which there are some 2,000 on tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, look like a miniature tank, but with a long, camera-topped neck. If this bot resembles an animal, it’s an Apatosaurus.

But most prototypes for future combat robots do resemble humans or animals, as robotics researchers plumb our – and our pet’s – physiologies for inspiration: Boston Dynamic’s LS3 robot, designed for the Marines, prances like a charmingly fat cat, and its BigDog robot moves, well, like man’s best friend.

At the same time, the company’s prototypes are also striding into humanoid terrain. The Atlas robot resembles a robot as cinema has always imagined it – a metal, broad-shouldered human. And the PETMAN robot goes a step further: It can be suited up to handle chemical warfare, and “simulates human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating.”

“It very much resembles a human,” says Carpenter, of PETMAN. “And it’s important to understand how people are interacting with robots right now, before they look anything like a human.”

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