What’ll happen to Veterans’ Day when many of our ‘warriors’ are drones?


This poor guy, a U.S. Navy Pacbot, undergoes some surgery for a new battery. (Photo by SurfaceWarriors.)

Let's be clear: We're still a long way from replacing all of our soldiers, planes, tanks and ships with unmanned vehicles that can make their own decisions.

But we're not far from a future when many of our human warfighters become significantly augmented by intelligent machines. One proposal, for example, envisions fighter pilots leading a set of drone wingmen into battle:

From a pilot's perspective, the perfect wingman exists as an extension of the lead pilot, dutifully and silently following the lead aircraft, launching weapons and enhancing situational awareness when commanded, and autonomously completing the basic administrative skills of taking off, flying formation, and landing. This is the future of UAVs.

The prospect of machines fighting alongside people raises an awkward question: How do you honor a bucket of bolts on Veterans' Day?

The idea is less crazy than you might think. Soldiers deployed overseas have, in a lot of cases, already bonded with their semi-autonomous comrades. They anthropomorphize their robots, giving them names like Owen Wilson and Kandahar Kate. They hold full burials and fire 21-gun salutes when they "die."

University of Washington researcher Julie Carpenter has studied this phenomenon, concluding from an interview with two dozen bomb-squad techs that the connection between man and machine is personal and real.

"They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet," Carpenter said.

The way soldiers respond to their robots seems instructive for the rest of us. Obviously, we'll never feel the loss of a drone who jumps on a grenade as acutely as we do when human soldiers do it. But as intelligent robots become an increasingly important part of America's war machine, soldiers may come to see them as more than just another piece of equipment.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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Brian Fung · November 11, 2013