War – the ugly side of robotic development

There is one problem which worries the “man or woman in the street”, and puts them right off the idea of robots, and that is their potential use as warriors. It happens with most inventions of course, some war-mad General, who has not taken part in any fighting for many years, looks at a new invention, say a toy helicopter for example, and says to himself “I could use that to carry a chemical weapon”.

The following video shows exactly what I am concerned about. It does not say that the tiny flying robotic drones shown in the film actually exist now, and apparently it is an old video, but you can bet that if they don’t exist, they are certainly being developed. My favourite YouTube comment after watching the video . . . “How about creating something that would enhance peace and life. Not for the destructive armies. Bloody morons.”

When Google bought their way into robotics recently by purchasing several companies, they acquired some very interesting technology, much of which had a strong military link. The next video shows some examples of what Google now has. One brief comment from YouTube: “Google = Skynet”.

The joke link between Google and the fictional Skynet, appears many times on the internet with some mocked-up logos too. But I wonder if perhaps Google is moving away from possible military links and investing its millions in domestic robotics instead? Google has recently distanced itself from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) which organises an annual Robotics Challenge with the following aims (taken from their website):

“The DRC is a competition of robot systems and software teams vying to develop robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. It was designed to be extremely difficult. Participating teams, representing some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world, are collaborating and innovating on a very short timeline to develop the hardware, software, sensors, and human-machine control interfaces that will enable their robots to complete a series of challenge tasks selected by DARPA for their relevance to disaster response.

“The DRC Finals will take place from June 5-6, 2015 at Fairplex in Pomona, California. The DRC Finals will require robots to attempt a circuit of consecutive physical tasks, with degraded communications between the robots and their operators; the winning team will receive a $2 million prize.

“Technologies resulting from the DRC will transform the field of robotics and catapult forward development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones.”

There are many videos on YouTube showing previous Robotics Challenges, and most of them show greatly speeded up footage because, at the present time, the robots take such a long time to do anything exciting! In 2013, Team Schaft, now part of Google Inc’s robotics division, won the Challenge after successfully completing the tasks as shown in the video below.

A few of the comments from YouTube are worth repeating here:

“It looks like they are on the way to a Fukushima clean up robot.”

“Coolest robot ever or Terminator precursor, you decide.”

“I feel like I’ve been asleep for 20 years … when did these advanced robots start taking over?”

There are so many people who just don’t realise how far robotics has come in the last few years.

The 2014 DARPA Robotics Challenge has been delayed for six months, and the Google team have pulled out of the competition. Recode.net reported on Google’s decision in June this year:

“Schaft, an impressively dextrous little robot that earned the highest score in the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials in December, has left the competition after all.

“Google acquired the team at the end of last year and reports emerged soon after that they’d withdraw from the $2 million competition, as first published on PopularScience.com. In March, DARPA shot down those concerns, announcing that the robot was sticking to the program, but switching into the self-funded track.

“But in a call with reporters on Thursday, DARPA’s Gill Pratt said the team had officially elected to withdraw to “focus on their commercial product.”

“That news came amid a general update on the Department of Defense robotics competition, which will now occur later, include more teams and involve more challenging tasks than previously planned.”

To read an interview with Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, from July 2014, in which they give their thoughts on robotics, click here to go to the UK Guardian newspaper website.

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