Where to begin on this one? Well, first off a disclosure. I formerly worked at MRIGlobal, which was formerly known as Midwest Research Institute. We had a large contract with Boston Dynamics as the systems integrator developing the robot mentioned here. I'm assuming I'm not breaching my still-enforced security clearance because that info is readily available on BD's website. Anyway, when we got the contract, and my boss told me the government was paying tens of millions of dollars to build an incredibly accurate anthropomorphic robot - for no other reason that to put it in chem suits - I laughed. "Surely, Joe, you don't think that's the real purpose of this program? How many other organizations in the DoD are salivating for a man-like robot? How long until DARPA funds "PETMAN...with a gun"?" Joe agreed that maybe this program had integrity, they really did want the robot to test chem suits, but that I was right too: other government agencies would want to use the robot for less civilian purposes.
Over the weekend I saw this article on Danger Room. Here's an excerpt for the busy:
In [DARPA's] $2.8 billion budget for 2013, unveiled on Monday, they’ve allotted $7 million for a project titled “Avatar.” The project’s ultimate goal, not surprisingly, sounds a lot like the plot of the same-named (but much more expensive) flick.
According the agency, “the Avatar program will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.”
These robots should be smart and agile enough to do the dirty work of war, Darpa notes. That includes the “room clearing, sentry control [and] combat casualty recovery.” And all at the bidding of their human partner.
Freaky? Um, yes. But the initiative does strike as the next logical step in Darpa’s robotics research. For one thing, the agency’s already been investigating increasingly autonomous, lifelike robots, including Petman (a headless humanoid), designed to mimic a soldier’s physiology
Hate to say I told you so. But the question we need to ask is "is spending money to eliminate foot soldiers a good investment? Development of UAVs provides a good comparison here, as "getting pilots out of dangerous airspace while still maintaining an air presence" was one of the justifications for UAV development and deployment.
But UAVs have been one of the biggest foreign relations disasters of all time. Drones are almost universally hated by the people - even the good people - who live in countries where they are deployed. On the other end of the spectrum, stories of soldiers on the ground interacting successfully with the locals and winning their trust are numerous.
Look, I don't want Americans (or really any other person) killed in battle and if a robot can make that avoidable by serving as a proxy soldier, I guess I can't complain. But on the other hand the reality of Americans dying is one of the major reasons we pursue an endgame for our military conflicts. If we have no Americans in harms way, either in the sky or on the ground...we might just keep on fighting wars forever.