I have just been watching a video on Nick Anstead’s blog about a new military robot called SWORD. In the video we see a soldier sitting at a terminal directing something that looks like Johnny 5 with an M16 strapped to it. The voice-over suggests that the robot will be able to do all the things a soldier can do, with the added bonus of not being a flesh and blood person.
After my initial “oh crap, skynet is here!” response, the next thing that struck me was that a soldier at a terminal is necessarily going to be somewhat disconnected from the the actual situation on the ground, as he has to rely on the robot’s senses to mediate whats going on, and then fill in the blanks himself. Great for the soldier, as he isn’t in any physical danger, but not so great for the ‘insurgents’ in the building – the soldier/robot combo will surely have problems reading the atmosphere/emotions/tensions and could get things wrong. Its also got to be a lot easier to press a button and shoot a gun via a terminal than to do it face to face. I suppose the upside is that as the soldier is in no physical danger, he is more likely to act with a certain amount of reserve and afford the benefit of the doubt. Maybe.
Its great that technology can help keep soldiers a little safer in the very dangerous situations they must work in, but one of the good things about soldiers is that they are human, and humans have that uncanny ability to take in, grasp and adapt to situations on the fly. They also have the ability to relate to other people, generate trust and engage in dialogue with others (whether they choose to do so is another matter). I’m not sure that sending in mini-killing machines is going to help the Iraqis relate to the Americans. In fact, it may just end up dehumanizing both sides even more.