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Bots on The Ground

Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices.
Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices. (By Staff Sgt. James Kokotek -- Robotic Systems Joint Project Office)

So where does the air vehicle called the Predator fit? It is unmanned, and impressive. In 2002, in Yemen, one run by the CIA came up behind an SUV full of al-Qaeda leaders and successfully fired a Hellfire missile, leaving a large smoking crater where the vehicle used to be. Was this the first bot to incinerate Homo sapiens? It is an artificially intelligent machine. But a remote human told it to fire the missile. So can it be said that we now actually have murderous robots? Reasonable people differ. The fellows in the SUV, of course, might find these distinctions overly fine.

More significant than autonomy, thinks Rodney Brooks, may be the way humans have evolved to recognize instantly when an entity behaves like it's alive -- "animate" is the word he uses. Brooks is director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, co-founder and chief technology officer of the pioneering firm iRobot and author of "Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us."

What the battle bots are teaching us is how easily we identify our own creations as animate.

Digital pets like the Tamagotchi or the Furby, designed to be cute, have long caused children to make spooky levels of connection. Sherry Turkle, founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, quotes kids describing intelligent machines as "sort of alive."

Robots at MIT with fanciful names like Cog and Kismet are intentionally built to display what look like emotions. Kismet can listen, and speak with expression. Its cartoonish eyes, ears, eyebrows, eyelids and lips move to create facial expressions that make it appear to be happy, sad, disgusted, calm, interested, angry or surprised.

Humans respond so readily to Kismet, created by Cynthia Breazeal, that graduate students working in the lab at night have been known to put up a curtain between themselves and the bot, Brooks reports. They couldn't stand the way it seemed to gaze around and stare at them. It broke their concentration. These humans are as sophisticated about robots as anyone on Earth. Yet even they are freaked by Kismet's lifelike behavior. "We're programmed biologically to respond to certain sorts of things," Brooks explains.

It's not about how the machine works. It's about how humans are wired.

What's remarkable about the battle bots is that humans bond with them even though their designers have made no attempt to load them with emotional cues. Troops use cheap little scouts like the MARCbot as a point man on reconnaissance. It is basically a remote-controlled toy truck made military tough and embellished with a long neck to which has been added a camera. Its little head peers around doors and into windows, or it cranes up to examine suspicious packages. Soldiers refer to such bots as "like a 10th man," and "like an extra set of eyes," Brooks reports. They also refer to them as "Johnny Five," the intelligent robot of our celluloid dreams in the "Short Circuit" films.

It's common for a soldier to cut out a magazine picture of a woman, tape it to the antenna and name the bot something like "Cheryl," says Paul Varian, a former Army chief warrant officer who has served three tours in Iraq with the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office. "There's an awful lot of picture-taking," he says. One guy who married just before deployment wanted his wife to see the gal who was his constant companion. It was a PackBot. "One Guard unit got so attached to a development model that we gave it to them. It was pretty beat up. They put it in a place of honor in their museum."

"When we first got there, our robot, his name was Frankenstein" says Sgt. Orlando Nieves, an EOD from Brooklyn. "He'd been in a couple of explosions and he was made of pieces and parts from other robots." Not only did the troops promote him to private first class, they awarded him an EOD badge -- a coveted honor. "It was a big deal. He was part of our team, one of us. He did feel like family."

"I've been a proponent for a long time of painting a mouth and eyes on the Global Hawk," the Learjet-size surveillance bot, says retired Col. Tom Ehrhard, a former chief of the Air Force's "Skunk Works" -- its strategy, concepts and doctrine division.

"It looks like a blind mole. Give it some character. Make it easier for humans to deal with -- more animate. Humans are social animals. Make that other thing part of your family, your social structure. Try to animate and make either fearsome or lovable your implements of war."

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