Expert Advice to Pentagon: Do Not Fear the Robots

By Sandra I. Erwin

When it comes to robots, the Defense Department is letting timidity and misconceptions get in the way of technological progress, says a Pentagon advisory panel.

“Unfortunately, the word ‘autonomy’ often conjures images in the press and the minds of some military leaders of computers making independent decisions and taking uncontrolled action,” says a report by the Defense Science Board task force on the role of autonomy in defense systems.

The DSB provides independent advice to the secretary of defense. The study was published in July.

“The true value of these systems is not to provide a direct human replacement, but rather to extend and complement human capability,” the study says. “With proper design of bounded autonomous capabilities, unmanned systems can also reduce the high cognitive load currently placed on operators and supervisors.”

There is broad consensus in the defense technology world that robots are useful, and are here to stay. But to take further advantage of technological advances that are moving at a rapid pace, the Pentagon needs to get the facts straight about what autonomous weapons can and cannot do, the panel says.

“While the potential of autonomy is great, there have been many obstacles to general broad acceptance of unmanned systems, and, specifically, the autonomous capabilities needed to realize the benefits of autonomy in military applications,” says the report.

Pressing needs for aerial surveillance and bomb detection in war zones fueled the demand for robotic systems over the past decade.

The Air Force has a large fleet of remotely piloted aircraft, including 128 Predators, 30 Reapers and 13 Global Hawks that are deployed in combat operations. These aircraft generate more than 1,000 hours of full-motion video each day. The Air Force owns about 700 drones, and the Army nearly 500. The Defense Department also has purchased 6,000 bomb-sniffing robots for use by ground troops.

The DSB believes that many more missions could be taken over by unmanned vehicles. “To date, most of the demonstrated benefits of autonomous systems have been in air or ground applications, but there exists no reason that they could not be effective in maritime and space missions as well,” the report suggests.

The U.S. Navy is developing an unmanned combat aircraft that can fly autonomously. But defense officials still are hesitant to move forward with this technology because of politically sensitive issues concerning the use of drones in antiterrorism operations. Because of the civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, the word “autonomous” is being equated with indiscriminate killing.

The DSB study suggests that by making robots more independent from human operators, the Pentagon in fact could improve the accuracy of its drone strikes because humans would be less taxed by mundane functions and could concentrate on the more difficult tasks.

“Increased autonomy can enable humans to delegate those tasks that are more effectively done by computer, including synchronizing activities between multiple unmanned systems, software agents and war fighters — thus freeing humans to focus on more complex decision making,” the report says.

Misperceptions about autonomy are limiting progress, the DSB concludes.

“It should be made clear that all autonomous systems are supervised by human operators at some level, and autonomous systems’ software embodies the designed limits on the actions and decisions delegated to the computer. Instead of viewing autonomy as an intrinsic property of an unmanned vehicle in isolation, the design and operation of autonomous systems needs to be considered in terms of human-system collaboration.”

Photo Credit: Defense Department

Topics: Defense Department, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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