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Robots

08/08/07 5:55PM By Philip Baruth

(HOST) Recenty, the Army announced that it will be sending 18 fully armed robots to the war zone in Iraq. For various reasons, commentator Philip Baruth is aghast.

(BARUTH) Let me begin by saying that nobody loves robots more than I do. I stumbled onto Isaac Asimov's "I Robot" series when I was twelve and never looked back. What made the novels so fascinating is that the robots were always experiencing very human emotional breakdowns, mostly over Asimov's First Law of Robotics: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

The catch, of course, is the the Second Law of Robotics calls for robots to immediately obey any command from any human being. You see the problem: in nearly every story, humans put robots in a position where they must choose between morality and obedience.

I'm thinking about Asimov today because of what I read online yesterday: the Pentagon is about to deploy 18 fully armed robots in Iraq, tiny systems about three feet high, mounted on tank treads, and each carrying an M249 machine gun. The robots go by the acronym SWORDS, short for "special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system."

These new robots are based on the same technology as those currently being used to disarm roadside bombs. Both are piloted remotely, and both can achieve speeds up to about 20 miles an hour. The only real difference is that the bomb disposal robots adhere to Asimov's First Law. The new SWORDS units, on the other hand, can be modified to fire M40 grenades and even rockets.

But it turns ou there are a few glitches. First, the units tend to spin wildly out of control, for reasons that remain unclear. Second, soldiers operating robots occasionally experience a lag-time of up to eight seconds. In other wods, when the robots aren't firing wildly at anything in a 360 degree radius, they're prone to silence and unresponsive behavior, like sulky adolescents.

Of course, the Army found an elegant solution to the problem of runaway robots: a kill swith that disables the unit if it "goes crazy." But, when you think about it, the kill switch  simply leaves the whole $200,000 unit lying defenseless in the sand. Unlike Predator drones, which fly far above small arms fire, these new killer robots are actually sitting ducks.

So why is the Army rushing to field them now, when their liabilities still so clearly outweigh their usefulness? Well, the link I clicked yesterday took me to a web site called Quickjump.net, which looks like your average technology/video gaming site, with one exception: it was plastered with ads for something called "The Army Gaming Championships," a competitive video game tournament sponsored by the U.S. Army and offering over $200,000 in assorted prize money.

In other words, the SWORDS units may or may not achieve results on the battlefield, but they are already being smoothly integrated into the Army's increasingly brazen pitch to adolescent boys. And that, more than anything else, is what must hav Isaac Asimov, the great moral philosopher of my youth, spinning in his grave.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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