13 August 2009
Robot Three-Way Portends Autonomous Future
By David Axe
In the military these days, robot-human relationships are usually strictly monogamous and definitely subservient: one bot, one human operator — with the human calling most of the shots. But we’re rapidly approaching the day when robots will be able to “think, learn and perform human tasks,” according to Dr. Thomas Killion, the Army’s top scientist.
Killion spoke at the annual Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade show in D.C. on Wednesday, on a panel with Army Col. Greg Gonzalez, program manager for Army aerial robots.
Growing robot autonomy means humans controllers are increasingly able let robots think for themselves … and they can bring more, self-directing bots into the mix, too. In the near term, we’ll see single human operators controlling multiple, highly autonomous robots. After that, the robots will be fully autonomous and control themselves, without any human intervention. Even farther in the future, autonomous robots will control other autonomous robots. That, we might call “unmanned teaming.”
In a recent unmanned-teaming test Gonzalez described, an Army contractor loaded robotic sensors — stationary spy bots, in essence — onto a small Unmanned Ground Vehicle. Then they slung the ground vehicle underneath a Fire Scout robot chopper, pictured. The chopper dropped off the ground bot, which dropped off the sensors. Today, all three bot types are controlled by their own, separate, human operators. In the future, a single operator might control all three. Soon thereafter, some or all might control themselves.
The Army is already assigning aerial bot control to a smaller number of operators, with its new “universal” ground control stations that are compatible with several robot types, Gonzalez said. Adding ground bots to the same controller is tricky, according to MIT Prof. Missy Cummings, since the ground and the air are such different environments. But the more autonomy you build into a robot, the less need you have for any control station, universal or otherwise.
For Transhumanists, who believe we are spelling our own doom in creating highly sophisticated, thinking machines, the idea of giving bots the ability to control other bots, is surely terrifying. But to the military, it’s a great idea, hopefully leading to unmanned teams that are more than the sum of their parts. Future bots and bot teams might “replicate, if not exceed, human capability” within the next few decades, Killion said.