Thursday, December 10, 2009

Terminator Now (Pt. 2)

The breakthroughs in robotics are not limited to ground warfare. While the Navy has invested in to the technology, mainly in the realm of artificial intelligence for defense systems, it is the air force that has perhaps vested the most interest in to the field. The Predator, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or drone plane, has been in operational use since the late 1990s.

As the technology has advanced, so has the military’s dependence on it. As of March 2009 there were a reported 195 Predators in the Air Force’s arsenal. Another report shows Predators firing missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008. (Wikipedia) In 2009, President Obama cancelled funding for the overpriced and impractical F-22 fighter jet, and approved the Unmanned Aerial System Flight Plan, which places a heavier focus on the development of unmanned aircrafts. At $4.5 million, one could buy eighty-five Predators for the cost of one of the F-22 jets. (Singer, Wired for War)

A lot of people are at least aware of the existence of the Predator drone planes. These twenty-seven feet long, 1,130 pound planes are known as UAVs. (Singer, Wired for War) This means that the plane is pilot less and is flown by a “pilot”, usually on the other side of the ocean, via satellite communication. In his book, Wired for War, P.W. Singer likens the control panels for the drone planes to an arcade video game. After a day in one of these consoles, flying a satellite controlled robotic plane over the mountains of Afghanistan and attacking enemy targets, the “pilot” gets to go home and have dinner with his family around the kitchen table.

There are other advantages to having a plane without a pilot. The Predator can spend twenty-four hours in the air, at heights of twenty-six thousand feet, before it needs to refuel. (Singer, Wired for War) It goes without saying that would be impossible with a human pilot, who needs to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. Also, the controller receives satellite imagery from cameras attached to the plane that can see through clouds, smoke, and dust, something a human pilot would not be able to do. Since the Predator was originally created for surveillance, the cameras can also reportedly identify something as small as a license plate from two miles up.

The Predator is now one of the most lethal tools in the militaries arsenal. Although designed as a surveillance plane, Predators are now armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. The general populace started becoming familiar with Predators after some high profile attacks on the Pakistan border in 2008, but the truth is that as far back as between June 2005 and June 2006 Predators carried out a reported 2,073 missions, flew 33,833 hours, and surveyed 18,490 targets. (Singer, Wired for War) As noted before, the Air Force has been drifting towards the unmanned approach for some time.

The Predator has received some press and is more widely known than anything else in its robotics family currently on the battlefield. The Global Hawk, affectionately referred to as the Predator’s big brother, has stayed surprisingly in the shadows for something so big. The Hawk is forty feet long and is used to patrol entire regions of land, not just particular targets like the Predator. The Hawk flies autonomously after being put on a set course, which basically means it flies itself and doesn’t even have a pilot in an arcade console controlling it. It can stay in the air for up to thirty-five hours at altitudes of sixty-five thousand feet so the Global Hawk primarily serves the purpose of surveillance. (Singer, Wired for War) Think of it as the equivalent of the Star Destroyers in the Star Wars films, with the Predators being the smaller and more numerous TIE Fighters.

The Predators are not the smallest drone in the robotics chain though. There are UAVs even smaller that are launched and controlled by soldiers on the ground. One of these is the Shadow, which is about the size of a model airplane. The Shadow is used almost exclusively to patrol neighborhood sized areas. Its noisy nature, due to its propeller flying system, makes it incapable of being used for stealth surveillance missions.

For those missions that the Shadow cannot do, there is the Raven. The Raven is thirty-eight inches long, weighs four pounds and can fly for ninety minutes at up to four hundred feet. (Singer, Wired for War) In addition to being used for stealth surveillance on the ground, the Raven is also ideal for ground soldiers because it can be used to see over hills, walls, or buildings that may be obstructing their view. In effect, the ground military now has its own air support.

This is the present state of the robotic revolution. These wonders of technology that were once confined to the pages of science fiction are now being used daily on the battlefield and in civilian homes. Whether they are fighting our wars or cleaning our pools, the age of robots has arrived. But this is all just the beginning.

The peak, the ultimate goal, of robotic research is the sentient humanoid robot. These robots will be much like the ones in movies like Terminator, capable of independent thought and decision making, and humanoid in form and action. Steps towards this evolution have already been made. For years, iRobot has been researching animatronic facial expressions and responsive and expressive robotic software. (Wikipedia) In addition, scientists have been working on complicated networks of software with intricate ethic and judgment systems. The age of Terminators may be a lot closer than anyone realizes.

Another much talked about robot of the future is the Wasp. The Wasp, sometimes described to be a mini metallic robot beetle and other times a robotic moth, is the pinnacle of stealth surveillance technology. These tiny bug sized robots carry microscopic cameras and would (ideally) be completely silent; the literal fly on the wall.

All of this, these limitless possibilities of robotic technology, is where the questions of ethics begin to arise. Should robots be able to make decisions on their own? Should we license them to be able to make life or death decisions? Is the microscopic camera robot too much? In 2008, there were reports of several sightings of these “Wasp” spy robots at political events; claims that are widely regarded to be paranoid conspiracy babble, but it does put in to perspective the terrifying prospect of the power of such tools.

Ultimately, humans have nothing to fear from the robot revolution, except for maybe the prospect of the complete deficit of self sufficiency. All technological revolutions bring about their own problems, questions, and obstacles. Inevitably, they are always exaggerated and inflated by the human race’s crippling fear of change. The technology and lack of responsibility already exist in the world’s atomic bomb supplies to destroy this planet ten times over. Comparatively, what threats do robots pose?

For even though there are legitimate and sizable complications in the transition to a robotic age, it will always be us humans in control of the direction of progress. The biggest fear in some circles is that al-Qaeda, or any enemy organization, could disable and capture a robot and then reprogram it to work under their orders. Already, the human race is its own biggest obstacle and enemy in this new field of development. When the Terminator arrives, it may just be that it has more to fear from us than we ever could from it.

Antal, J. (2009, July). I Fight the Body Electric! . Military Technology
Engdahl, S. (2008). Artificial Intelligence. Contemporary Issues Companion
Knight, G. (2009, March). March of the Terminators. Daily Mail (London)
Singer, P. (2009). Wired for War. Penguin Pr.

iRobot. Wikipedia. Retrieved (2009, December ) from

1 comment:

  1. Apart from just being a fascinating topic, it flows very well as it is very well written.

    Around the time time you got to the Terminator bots I started wondering if this style of warfare can only go so far before it backfires? Today we are fighting the War on Terror to take the fight to the enemy that is hellbent (?) on killing our people and destroying our institutions. So far, that strategy has largely worked as we haven't had an attack on American soil since 9/11. But will the enemy even be willing to stand and fight the American infidel if it's a robot that doesn't shed American blood and that, if destroyed, isn't a tragedy? Or would they turn their focus entirely to the killing of our people at home?

    Not trying to get too twisted, just a thought.