Here come the real Terminators

The two-year DARPA Robotics Challenge, which will hand out innovation prize money to teams that can build a robot capable of walking over rubble, manipulating complex tools, driving utility vehicles and performing a number of other disaster response operations, has the potential to create the first generation of emergency first-responder robots. Despite the daunting scale and scope of the challenge, DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, anticipates that at least one winning team will be able to create a robot capable of performing eight different tasks as part of one continuous physical disaster scenario by December 2014.

A shop assistant displays a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" DVD in a DVD store in Beijing Tuesday Nov. 15, 2005. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)
We’re not quite to the point where the film is jumping out of the box, but how far away are we? (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

But what’s to stop the same indestructible robots that can walk over rubble, manipulate complex tools and enter burning buildings from being used in entirely different scenarios by the U.S. military? They might, for example, be able to march through debris-strewn war zones, manipulate weapons and hunt down terrorists, on a house-by-house basis. In other words, the DARPA Robotics Challenge could result in the creation of a real-life Terminator bot.

As we’ve seen with the current NSA surveillance revelations, technology can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, technology has the capability to detect terrorist threats before they emerge and create an early-warning system for our national intelligence officials. On the other hand, technology used indiscriminately has the capability to usher in a 1984-style surveillance state, where every citizen has his or her private life monitored on a daily basis. It’s little wonder sales of George Orwell’s “1984″ are on the rise in the wake of the NSA news.

While the scenario outlined above – the DARPA Robotics Challenge leading to the development of Terminator-style bots more suited for war-zones than disaster zones – probably sounds far-fetched, it does have some officials in the U.S. military and academia concerned. We’ve already seen how much controversy unmanned drones have caused — can you imagine the implications of unmanned military bots in a place like Baghdad or Kabul? In a recent article on “the search for the perfect robot soldier,” The Guardian (no stranger to controversy as it relates to the intelligence sector) describes how the U.S. military is looking to increase its reliance on military robots (the military refers to them as “unmanned systems”) through the year 2036. The current DARPA Robotics Challenge appears to fit neatly within that strategy.

The increasing reliance on robots within the military should raise a whole host of ethical and moral questions. As Isaac Asimov once asked, Is it ever ethical for a robot to do harm to a human, either through action or inaction?

Watch a video of a DARPA rescue bot performing its duties, and it’s hard not to flash back to the Terminator films made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly 30 years ago. You wouldn’t want to mess with the 330-pound ATLAS robots being developed by Boston Dynamics, no matter how slowly or haltingly they move over debris and rubble. As The Guardian describes them:

“The Atlas robot looks something out of the post-apocalyptic future, or maybe a Will Smith blockbuster. It’s a 330lb cyborg with eerily human-like hands and a head equipped with a laser. It lunges forward with a grim, deliberate clatter on curved slices of metal for feet.”

It’s worth taking into account that the D in DARPA is there for a reason. The same people who give us fun innovation challenges on a regular basis are also the same people who dream up ways to find military applications for cool technologies. In the case of cyber security, DARPA is now working on new innovations that would make carrying out a military cyber attack as easy and as intuitive as playing a game of Angry Birds. Ultimately, DARPA’s goal is to take cool existing technologies and transform them into something that can protect our national security with as few casualties as possible. In this case, DARPA says that it is conducting the robotics challenge because “our national security is vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters.” At the end of the day, it’s better to have a 330-pound robot racing into a burning building or crawling through dangerous debris than a human.

So, maybe all these fears of a Terminator bot are unfounded.

After all, DARPA is the same organization that brought us the Internet. It’s easy to see how one of the teams competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, such as the NASA JPL team (the folks behind the Mars rover Curiosity, among other fun space tech), might take this robotics technology and transform it into something that could be used to explore the moon or even the surface of Mars. Certainly, DARPA has attracted some of the smartest people on the planet to create things that could make our lives better. However, in the wake of the NSA news scandal and the ongoing controversy around unmanned drones, is it too much to take a deep breath and ask, “What exactly are we letting our government build these days?”

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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