Autonomous Machines to Defeat Threats Beyond the Speed of Thought

By Stew Magnuson
The Navy ship sailed up the James River on a clear day with no less than 13 escorts. All of the small boats assigned to protect the ship were armed with .50 caliber machine guns, and none of them had sailors aboard.

A helicopter spotted another boat and designated it as a threat. Perhaps it was a boat laden with improvised explosives. All 13 of the robots went into a swarm maneuver to protect the high value ship. Each acted on its own in coordination with the other unmanned boats.

This Office of Naval Research experiment, which took place in August, was the culmination of 10 years of research and development, its organizers said. But the next wave of autonomy in military systems could come much quicker than that.

Experts are talking about exponential progress as Moore’s law on computing power converges with breakthroughs on the way researchers are tackling the challenge of creating fully autonomous weapons, which includes robots and other systems.

“The next five years will see the same kind of leaps made in the last 30 years as advances in cognitive systems come online,” said James Canton, CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures in San Francisco.

Cognitive systems differ from the typical computer chip in that they are based on the way the human brain thinks, he said. “It’s based on the brain as opposed to just based on silicon.”
This will create what Canton calls “holistic” awareness for machines. “They are aware of themselves, aware of objects and information and levels of physical and virtual reality around them. They are aware of other nodes in their own network,” he said.

Drones flying or swimming at different levels of awareness would be able to interact and may autonomously attack a system not identified as part of their own network.

Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said the service wants “machines to make decisions. We want the machine and the individual to be viewed as teammates, and then we concentrate on doing what machines do best and have them do those tasks to take off the burden on the … human.”

Masiello said the unmanned aerial vehicles of the future may at first make recommendations to human operators on potential courses of action. They might suggest what weapons should be selected. The next step would be onboard decision making.

“And then finally kind of merging those into where you have maybe an unmanned wingman sort of thing,” he said.

Autonomy is not only applied to robotics, but information technology systems as well. It can be used to sift through the massive amounts of data collected by intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, Masiello said.

“We’re just collecting huge amounts of data. We are overwhelming the analysts. … We don’t have the manpower to provide the analytical capability given all the data we’ve collected. So it’s a natural fit,” he said. “The possibilities are endless with this technology,” he added.
Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research, said the James River demonstration showed that a typical seven-meter patrol craft could be easily converted into an autonomous robot. The device to convert the boats into bots fits in the palm of his hand and cost only a few thousand dollars, he told reporters.

But that was not the breakthrough, he said. The algorithms allowed the boats to work collectively to surround the threat, protect the high-value boat and destroy the intruder, if necessary. It could be used to protect harbors, off-shore oil rigs and merchant vessels.
The algorithms for autonomy are “doing nothing but getting better every day,” Klunder said. Putting the demonstration together took only nine months. “This train is moving really fast,” he added.

The Navy intends to apply this kind of autonomy to unmanned underwater vehicles and aerial drones, he said.

Canton said that type of “brain in a box is going to be what drives every defense system, every flyable, every swimmable. …There are convergent forces that are going to make autonomy become a reality faster than anything.”

Full autonomy, without a human operator needed, is coming quickly, he added.
Military officials such as Masiello and Klunder always take pains to mention that there is a human in the loop overseeing systems that are armed such as the patrol boats on the James River. It remains Defense Department policy that military personnel make the ultimate decision to pull a trigger.

Canton said a new generation of robots that self evolve and self heal is not too much further in the future. It will be similar to the Internet, where the system makes thousands of decisions beyond the speed of thought. They will be part of an all-encompassing system, an “Internet of things,” he said.

“There will be a planetary civilization of connected things that will be communicating and making decisions around identifying threats,” he said. They will deploy assets, decide to engage or not to engage threats, and heal or adapt. “It is going to change the way we perceive engagement,” Canton said. “It is all moving very, very quickly,” he said.

This all conjures images of science fiction movies or books where machines and computers have taken over the world.

Those worries are valid, he said. “There are going to be significant risks with smart systems,” he said.

“The elephant in the room is not our ability to build autonomous systems, it is the ability to be able to control autonomous systems,” he said.

“The more we talk about it, the more we can build in safeguards. The emergence of smart systems will present risk. It is how we manage this risk that will make all the difference,” he added.

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Topics: Robotics

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