Autonomy in Robotics

Military Struggles to Find Limits of Robot Autonomy
By Stuart Fox, InnovationNewsDaily Assistant Editor
19 August 2011 5:25 PM ET

  WASHINGTON, D.C. – When science meets war, the capability of 
technology often outpaces the moral understanding of its use. 
Just as conflict forced previous generations to feel out the rule around 
the acceptable use of nuclear weapons or poisoned gas, advances in 
computer technology and a decade of drone combat has generated a debate 
among the military, the defense industry and policymakers regarding how 
much autonomy to grant battlefield robots.
Each party agrees that no computer should ever make the decision about  pulling the trigger. However, they also agree that controlling every  action a robot takes wastes military resources and dangerously limits  the capability of these weapons. However, soldiers, bureaucrats and  engineers strongly disagree about whether to err on the side of "killer  robot" or "remote-controlled toy." "The barrier isn't technical, it's doctrinal," said Ed Godere, a senior  vice president and director of the robotics division at Qinetiq, a  company that makes armed ground robots. "It may be more that they haven't  figured out how to integrate it into how they fight." The debate largely breaks along occupational lines. Think-tankers and  policy officials envision drones with the most autonomy, with robots  automatically driving convoys, flying supply missions and conducting  reconnaissance. The scientists and companies that design and build these  robots stake out a middle ground involving drones smart enough to follow  orders from humans without micromanagement during a mission. Active  military personnel generally remain the most skeptical of robot autonomy, and desire a robot only smart enough to alleviate mundane burdens such  as basic vehicle navigation or hauling gear. Autonomy is a necessary feature for all unmanned systems because in the  future, a single operator may control multiple robots simultaneously.  Without some degree of computer intelligence, no one person could  concentrate on maneuvering an array of ground and airborne weapons at the  same time. "What I see in the future is convoys being lead by a manned vehicle,  and autonomous vehicles following behind it. Also, autonomous air  vehicles working in tandem with manned fighter planes," said Ryan Vander  Ryk, a senior consultant at IHS Aerospace and Defense Consulting. "The  Marines were experimenting with bringing in supplies with a UAV. It was  piloted by someone on the ground, but they wanted to get to the level of  just pushing a button and the robot does the rest." However, Lt. Col. Nick Kioutas, an unmanned system acquisition officer  with the U.S. Army, said his own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan make  that level of autonomy seem impractical. Instead of autonomy allowing  soldiers to maximize their control of multiple robots, Kioutas thinks  automation better serves military objectives by freeing up soldiers to  concentrate on the jobs that robots cannot perform, such as using deadly  force or coordinating with other humans. "You want to have enough autonomy so someone can be in a vehicle, but  not watch the road," Kioutas told InnovationNewsDaily. "You may have one  operator working multiple UAVs, but more likely, you will have one guy  doing less while working a single vehicle." Manufacturers have been the most proactive in determining how much  autonomy a robot can have and still complete its mission without  endangering soldiers or civilians. To do so, companies such as Qinetiq  engage in extensive testing, putting its robots through the ringer with  soldiers and engineers alike, Godere told InnovationNewsDaily.  Ultimately, they hope to find the correct amount of autonomy before a  proactive robot ever reaches the battlefield. Of course, if the tests themselves are not trustworthy, then it may  take years of on the job training to determine how smart to make deadly  robots. "Testing of autonomy is very important," Kioutas said, "but we  don't necessarily know how to do it."

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