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U.S. Army Robots Break Asimov's First Law 821 821

buanzo writes "The US Army is deploying armed robots in Iraq that are capable of breaking Asmov's first law that they should not harm a human. SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems) robots are equipped with either the M249, machine gun which fires 5.56-millimeter rounds at 750 rounds per minute or the M240, which fires 7.62-millimeter rounds at up to 1,000 per minute. " update this story refers to this article from 2005. But com'on, robots with machine guns! I don't get to think about that most days!
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U.S. Army Robots Break Asimov's First Law

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  • Phalanx... (Score:5, Informative)

    by JDSalinger (911918) * on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @10:51AM (#14923795)
    I guess it depends what you consider to be a robot? And under what conditions it could kill another human? The Phalanx defense system, currentlly employed on U.S. Warships, would allow itself to shoot down an enemy aircraft if it were attempting to crash into the ship. The Phalanx uses radar to detect incoming missiles and shoot them out of the sky by unleashing an insane amount of bullets in direction of the target. Pictures and info here. [wikipedia.org]
  • Fluff Piece (Score:5, Informative)

    by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatmanNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @10:51AM (#14923798) Homepage Journal
    Don't bother with the Inquirer story. It's practically a verbatim copy of the source story here [technovelgy.com]. The only difference is that the source story adds the following comments:
    As I pointed out in the article (and the comments), these devices are not autonomous. For some, this would disqualify them from being true robots. However, the military and the manufacturer both refer to the SWORDS device as a robot, and it certainly fits common usage. The word "robot" comes from the Czech robota (from Capek's play R.U.R.) meaning "forced labor" or "drudgery." This device surely does an unpleasant task usually done by a person. Also, consider that, strictly speaking, an autonomous cruise missile is a self-guided machine, and is therefore a "robot" although most people wouldn't think of it that way.

    These are actually robots, but they're not the fully-autonomous solutions that Asimov was suggesting that mankind needed protection from. Thus the "laws" of robotics don't apply here, because it's still a human who's doing the thinking for the machine.

    In effect, this is a safe way for ground troops to line up a kill zone, then cause lots 'o bad guys to get torn to shreds. Prior to this, troops needed to use a vehicle-mounted machine gun to get this sort of rate of fire. This was extremely limited in close quarters, where a Humvee or Tank might not fit. While it was theoretically possible to carry a machine gun to the combat zone, such weapons are difficult to transport, setup, and use in close quarters.
  • Not an Automaton (Score:2, Informative)

    by johndeerejedi (317878) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @10:53AM (#14923826)
    This is not an autonomous robot, but a radio controlled robot. We've been using laser guided bombs since the 1970s and other robots for this purpose for years. Until they are using automatons (autonomous robots not controlled by a human operator) it is not breaking Azimovs law.
  • Not a robot (Score:5, Informative)

    by akheron01 (637033) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @10:55AM (#14923847) Homepage
    I don't know why people seem to want to classify everything that moves as a robot, this is a waldo [wikipedia.org] rather than a robot. To be a robot it has to make it's own decisions through some form of artificial intelligence or simulated intelligence, this is little more than a glorified remote control car with a gun strapped to it.
  • Re:Not really... (Score:3, Informative)

    by shoptroll (544006) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @10:59AM (#14923889)
    Agreed. They're called a "plot device", outside of Asimov's books they have no meaning whatsoever.
  • Not quite (Score:3, Informative)

    by Soulfader (527299) <sig@noSpAm.sigspace.net> on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:06AM (#14923951) Journal
    The M-249 is a belt or cartridge fed light machine gun, also known as the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). It fires the same rounds as the M-16, just a bit faster. It's heavier, but very much man-portable, and is a personal weapon. The M-240 is the 7.62mm replacement for the old M-60 of the Vietnam era. It is freaking heavy, and considered a crew-served weapon, but doesn't require a vehicle to move. You CAN mount either weapon on a Humvee turret, but it's hardly required. Again, SAWs are usually considered personal weapons.
  • Re:Phalanx... (Score:5, Informative)

    by DnemoniX (31461) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:17AM (#14924081)
    Actually the Phalanx (CIWS) is a remarkable bit of hardware. I worked with the system for four years and I have fired it in manual mode several times. The current incarnations of Phalanx are incredibly advanced even compared to the mods that were in service during the Gulf War. Since its original deployment it has undergone a steady evolution, from the drive train, to the radar systems, even the ammunition. But much like any other system it will only perform as well as the crew that is behind it. It must be tested, calibrated, and carefully maintained. The Wikipedia article calls it the "last line of defense", but onboard a ship it is called the first line of damage control. After all the system is designed to engage fast moving inbound targets, so even if you destroy the inbound target, you are still left with all if the inbound shrapnel traveling at high speeds. Not ideal, but it sure beats taking a live warhead from an anti-ship cruise missile. One other little tid-bit, the CIWS is unloaded every time a ship enters port and it may not be loaded again until you have crossed a specific distance marker outside of a port. That is a safety measure after an unfortunate incident in Hawaii where a few rounds were sent into the side of a hill while in port.
  • Re:Not to worry (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:30AM (#14924223)
    Replies make me think people aren't catching this, so people: That's an exact quote from Futurama. Zapp Branigan (sp?) to be exact.

    I'd forgotten the "You suck!" reply though, that's a nice touch.
  • by stubear (130454) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:39AM (#14924315)
    The US is not a democracy, it never has been. The US is a democratic republic. We use the democratic process to elect officials to act on our behalf.
  • by blueZ3 (744446) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:40AM (#14924328) Homepage
    What the Army is using is not a "robot" in the traditional sci-fi sense. The devices are not autonomous, and are under the control of a soldier who is the one making the decisions to pull or not pull the trigger. This is more of a "remote controlled gun platform" than a robot.

    The distinction is hard to get non-geeks to make though, as all sorts of remote controlled devices are talked about as "robots." They misuse this term all the time when talking about devices to search dangerous locations for earthquake survivors, for instance. The devices are like remote controlled cars with a camera on the front (and are not wirelessly controlled--they drag a cable behind them for power and control) but they call them "robots" all the time in the news
  • by Keebler71 (520908) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:50AM (#14924437) Journal
    Gov't sole access to technology? Just make one of these! [hackaday.com]
  • by js_sebastian (946118) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @11:52AM (#14924456)
    http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ [iraqbodycount.org]
    The beauty of modern warfare is very few people die relative to former wars. We've only lost around 2,000 men and women in Iraq so far and although it is a trajedy (not the war, but the loss) it is far less than wars of the same scale in years prior. Technology makes the difference.
    Perhaps you see only 2000ish dead US marines. The rest of the world sees more than 30 thousand people dead, the majority of them civilians. In fact there were times in history where wars mostly killed soldiers on both sides, instead of mostly slaughtering civilians. Yes, technology does make the difference.
  • Re:Who cares? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Johnny5000 (451029) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @12:05PM (#14924587) Homepage Journal
    You do realize that the Geneva Convention is a treaty that only applies to the treatment of soldiers of signatories to the treaty, don't you?


    The signatories of the treaty agree to follow the rules regarding the treatment of the prisoners they take, their actions during wartime, etc.
    A country that signs the treaty has to treat the prisoners of war that it captures according to the rules specified in the treaty, regardless of where those prisoners come from. That's why it's so important that the prisoners of war...excuse me, "enemy combatants" aren't officially recognized as prisoners of war... otherwise we'd have to treat them according to the rules of the treaty the US signed.

    Pretty please spare everyone the bullshit until you know what the hell you're talking about.
  • Re:Not really... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Elvis Impersonator (863474) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @12:08PM (#14924622)
    Why did most of these countries who *believed* Saddam had WMD refuse to go to war in Iraq? - - -

    While it's true that many governments suspected Saddam had WMD, there was no agreement as to what his actual capabilities were, or on what to do about it. Further, simply believing something to be true does not make it so, and certainly does not form a basis for war.

    The administration never had a "smoking gun" to prove Saddam had WMD, and in fact the intelligence supporting the administration's view was alarmingly thin. As we now know from various reports, US intelligence affirming WMD frequently came from paid informants who, in some cases, were later proven to be fabricators. There was virtually no intelligence coming out of Iraq itself--the country was impenetrable, leaving the US and others with little in the way of credible sources.

    It is also worth noting that while there was a range of opinion (and widespread error) as to Saddam's chemical and biological weapons capability, there certainly was not a consensus. The issue of nuclear weapons is a different story. Here, the US and UK stood nearly alone in their dire assessment. It was also on this issue that the administration demonstrated its willingness to use highly dubious intelligence reports by claiming that Iraq had sought nuclear material from Niger. This claim, of course, was based on crudely forged documents and should never have been made. The fact that the President did made this claim, and did so in a State of the Union address, is all the more troubling, especially given that the same statement was pulled from a speech he gave just a few months earlier.

    http://www.downingstreetmemo.com/realitycheck.html [downingstreetmemo.com]

  • by nathanm (12287) <<nathanm> <at> <engineer.com>> on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @12:26PM (#14924813)
    When are you gun nuts going to learn hwo to read? The Second Amendment states (emphasis mine): "A well regulated Militia, being neseccary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." We no longer maintain militias in the form the framers originally conceived so the Second Amendment is pointless.
    The militia does still exist. According to US Code: Title 10, 311 [cornell.edu], the militia consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.

    Also, you only highlighted the first half of the amendment, let's consider the other half:
    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
    The first half states the reason for protecting the right. The second half states the right itself and limits the governments' power with respect to the right. Some gun control advocates argue the Second Amendment is only a collective right, not an individual right. But if you follow their reasoning, it would apply to the First Amendment too.
  • Re:Who cares? (Score:4, Informative)

    by deacon (40533) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @12:45PM (#14925009) Journal

    http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/91.htm [unhchr.ch]

    Geneva Convention Article 4

    A. Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:

    1. Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.

    2. Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:

    (a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;

    (b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;

    (c) That of carrying arms openly;

    (d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.


    Hate to interrupt your uninformed rant, but persons who violate (b), (c), and (d) don't count as "prisoners of war". It's right there in the text of the geneva convention.



  • by amightywind (691887) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @12:56PM (#14925138) Journal

    This fellow [cbsnews.com] is a fine previous example of an exception to Azimov's first law.

  • Re:Not really... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @02:13PM (#14925840)
    Actually, U.S. Robotics doesn't exist anymore because they were bought by 3Com, but they made some of the best hardware modems ever in their Courier series. They didn't only make winmodems.
  • by Ian Peon (232360) <ian@epperson . c om> on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @02:22PM (#14925920)
    wasn't Asimov's first law broken decades ago, perhaps even by the V1 which was strictly speaking a remote operated vehicle?
    I was thinking more about the CIWS system [fas.org] (being an ex-Navy type). It has it's own computer system to detect a target, track, decide to engage, fire, kill assessment - it even looks like a ship-mounted robot, I usually describe it to people as looking like R2D2 with a gatling gun. Its targets are not limited to inbound missles, it will also take down aircraft.

    Or, how about an AEGIS [fas.org] ship itself? AEGIS ships can do about the same thing autonomously - automatically firing missles at targets that it is programmed to consider threatening.

    Mind you, these systems are (well, were) almost never put into fully automatic mode - that's usually reserved for times when the fecis is hittin the fan and the operator may not have time to react.

    ...or were we limiting the discussion to wheeled robots?

  • Re:Not really... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Scrameustache (459504) * on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @03:00PM (#14926276) Homepage Journal
    A lot of people think Asimov's laws are real, and don't get it that he was a sci-fi writer, not a scientist in the field of robotics. He was even asked to speak at universities as an expert on robotics when all he had done was write some stories.

    All he had done? Dude, doctor Asimov INVENTED the word "robotics".

    If they had read the robot novels, they would have noticed that even Asimov's robots did not always obey the laws.

    If YOU had read them, you would have noticed that they ALWAYS obey the laws. The laws just happen to have loopholes. i.e. No robot may harm a human... unless he doesn't know that the order he's following will result in a human being harmed, etc.
  • Re:Not really... (Score:3, Informative)

    by irablum (914844) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @04:15PM (#14926933)
    as on who also believed that Iraq had both Chemical and nuclear weapons in 2003, I decided to look up the answer to that. The answers I've gotten so far are:

    1) before ODS (Operation Desert Storm) Iraq had Nuclear weapons, Chemical weapons and Biological weapons.
    2) during ODS all or nearly all of the capability to produce, refine, or use these weapons was destroyed, either through US bombing or from inspectors.
    3) after ODS and before OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) the US had poor intelligence as to the Iraqi production capabilities of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological weapons, so it was easy for them to assume that Saddam's saber rattling about having such weapons was true.
    4) now, after (or during) OIF, the truth is that we think that there was no Nuclear or Chemical weapons capability in Iraq, (though the materials to make chemical weapons were certainly there), and there is some question as to where alot of Biological weapon stockpiles were.

    Source of this is http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/iraq_wmd_2004/ [cia.gov]

  • Re:Not really... (Score:5, Informative)

    by NetFu (155538) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @04:45PM (#14927233) Homepage Journal
    Obviously, you know nothing about the real military.

    I was in the U.S. Army, and we do not do whatever we're told by our superiors "give or take". There's no give or take involved since the Vietnam War. I know you said "Professional soldiers", but we are talking about the U.S. military, not just any merc.

    The U.S. Armed Forces Code of Conduct is taken very, very seriously by all of the members of the U.S. military. All U.S. soldiers are required to know it BY HEART and to understand every word of it, and it's impact on them as a modern soldier.

    Read every word of it, since you obviously never have:

    http://www.armystudyguide.com/content/army_board_s tudy_guide_topics/code_of_conduct/the-code-of-cond uct.shtml [armystudyguide.com]

    Pay close attention to article 6: "I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free."

    Every U.S. soldier is responsible for his own actions, not his superior who ordered him to do something illegal. A soldier who follows an order that is illegal or just plain wrong according to that soldier's morals is just as guilty as his superior who gave him that order.

    The bottom line: Any U.S. soldier can refuse to carry out an order if he believes it is illegal, and that soldier's judgement of whether an order is illegal is governed by his own morals.

    A robot has no morals, but if this Army robot is just a machine remote controlled by a U.S. soldier, then that soldier will be held accountable for any action by the robot, which is just an extension of him.

    Given that freedom that every U.S. soldier has to evaluate the orders they are given, there will still be incidents where soldiers with bad or no morals do horrible things when carrying out their orders.

    But, how is it any different when a U.S. citizen decides to take an automatic weapon to a school to gun down a couple of dozen kids?

    It all comes down to the morals of the indvidual, regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen or soldier. U.S. soldiers are no better or worse than the average U.S. citizen.
  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @05:24PM (#14927586)
    No it doesn't. The Geneva convention has a category for people who should be treated as prisoners of war (and they are protected). If there's doubt, a competent tribunal is supposed to decide. If you DON'T fit the category the Geneva convention still says that you're supposed to be "treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial."

    Nowhere does the GC say "okay, you're an illegal combatant, it's okay to torture you."

    In fact, the GC doesn't contain the words illegal combatant. That's an invention by the Bush administration as a category for people they don't want to treat as prisoners of war, but also don't want to treat as criminals -- ie, they don't want any laws at all to apply to them.
  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Wednesday March 15, 2006 @06:08PM (#14928091) Journal
    A couple of weeks ago I tried to submit the following story to slashdot, without any luck. I think it's fairly related to the current topic, and has a rather interesting video [defensereview.com] showing the helicopter firing its rapid-fire shotgun:

    A small company called Neural Robotics has produced a robotic mini-helicopter [defensereview.com] armed with a rapid-fire shotgun. Based on their off-the-shelf AutoCopter [neural-robotics.com], the UAV uses neural network-based flight control algorithms to fly in either a self-stabilizing semi-autonomous mode controlled by a remote operator, or a fully-autonomous mode which can follow GPS waypoints. A video [defensereview.com] of the AutoCopter Gunship is available.

    Stepping aside the ethical issues of replacing soldiers with flying shotgun-wielding robots for the moment, their "neural network-based" flight control system seemed like an interesting technical accomplishment. This PDF briefing [neural-robotics.com] has a few details.

    Taking a look at page 14 of their PDF though, perhaps their control system is a little on the simplistic side. It seems to just update roll and pitch based on the current movement and facing of the helicopter, without making use of visual information or other sensors. I'm not too familiar with flight control, but using a neural network for that seems like overkill. When in fully-autonomous mode, I wonder if they make use of sensors for crash-avoidance at all, or if they just hope that nothing's in the way of the chosen GPS coordinates.

    Assuming they haven't done so already, it would be rather neat to load some range-finding sensors on the helicopter and have it automatically avoid nearby obstacles; the basic algorithms should be fairly straightforward.

    Another idea is to allow the robot to visually track a point of laser light, potentially allowing somebody to control the robot with a designated laser. The military application of this is pretty obvious: You could quickly point a laser wherever the people shooting at you are hiding, so that the robot knows what area to scope out. A laser could also be used to trace out a patrol route for the robot, so that a user doesn't have to deal with typing in cumbersome GPS coordinates.

    As for civilian applications, the AutoCopter with a stabilized camera might be useful for filming video. One could imagine a system of two designated laser pointers, one for each hand. One pointer would designate a spot for the robot to hover over, while another pointer would indicate where the robot should direct its camera. Of course, one could alternatively just hire a dedicated RC operator, so perhaps this would be of limited usefulness.

Much of the excitement we get out of our work is that we don't really know what we are doing. -- E. Dijkstra