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Unmanned drone attacks and shape-shifting robots: War's remote-control future

The Pentagon already includes unmanned drone attacks in its arsenal. Next up: housefly-sized surveillance craft, shape-changing 'chemical robots,' and tracking agents sprayed from the sky. What does it mean to have soldiers so far removed from the battlefield?

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Other research into armed robots centers not so much on outperforming humans as being able to work with them. In the not-too-distant future, military officials envision soldiers and robots teaming up in the field, with the troops able to communicate with machines the way they would with a human squad team member. Eventually, says Thompson, the robot-soldier relationship could become even more collaborative, with one human soldier leading many armed robots.

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After that, the scenarios start to become something more out of the realm of film studios. For instance, retired Navy Capt. Robert Moses, president of iRobot's government and industrial relations division, can envision the day of humanless battlefields.

"I think the first thing to do is to go ahead and have the Army get comfortable with the robot," he says. One day, though, "you could write a scenario where you have an unmanned battle space – a 'Star Wars' approach."

These developments raise questions that ethicists are just beginning to unravel. This includes Peter Asaro, who last year formed the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. He's grappling with conundrums like: What, to a machine, counts as "about to shoot me?" How does a robot make a distinction between a dog, a man, and a child? How does it tell an enemy from a friend?

Such things are not entirely abstract. An automated "sentry robot" now stands guard in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, equipped with heat, voice, and motion sensors, as well as a 5 mm machine gun. What if it starts firing, accidentally or otherwise?

Within their own ranks, military officials are asking themselves similar questions. In March, the Navy launched a program at its postgraduate school in Monterey that explores the legal, social, and cultural impacts of unmanned systems. "Are we going to give the ability to a robot for conducting a killing operation based on its own software and sensors?" asks retired Navy Capt. Jeffrey Kline, who is directing the new effort. "That rightly causes a lot of red flags."

In part, military officials feel they have to develop these new systems to stay ahead of America's enemies, many of whom will be creating their own versions of automated armies. Yet that could lead to what some consider a 21st-century arms race and encourage others to use the new weapons.

Late last month, federal authorities charged a Massachusetts man with plotting an attack on the US Capitol and the Pentagon using a large, remote-controlled aircraft filled with explosives. Earlier this year, Libyan rebels contacted Aeryon Labs Inc., a Canadian drone manufacturer, about buying a small unmanned helicopter. "Ultimately, I think they found us through Googling. That's how a lot of people find us," says Dave Kroetsch, Aeryon's president. Aeryon officials say they get inquires from militaries all over the world, which is one reason they have decided not to sell weaponized drones.

In the end, the emerging era of remote-control warfare – like evolutions in warfare throughout history – will likely create profound new capabilities as well as profound new problems for the US. The key will be to minimize the one over the other.

"There are many futures that can be created," says Georgia Tech roboticist Arkin. "Hopefully, we can create, I won't say a utopian, but at least not a dystopian one."

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