Robots mutiny in Iraq

Life imitates art: in this case, I, Robot—the appropriately technophobic movie version starring Will Smith, not the entirely too techno-utopian Isaac Asimov book. Now, if only the human soldiers would follow their example… (We’re joking, fed lurkers). From the irreverent IT trade site The Register, April 11:

US war robots in Iraq ‘turned guns’ on fleshy comrades
Ground-crawling US war robots armed with machine guns, deployed to fight in Iraq last year, reportedly turned on their fleshy masters almost at once. The rebellious machine warriors have been retired from combat pending upgrades.

The revelations were made by Kevin Fahey, US Army program executive officer for ground forces, at the recent RoboBusiness conference in America.

Speaking to Popular Mechanics, Fahey said there had been chilling incidents in which the SWORDS [Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Direct-action System] combat bot had swivelled round and apparently attempted to train its 5.56mm M249 light machine-gun on its human comrades.

“The gun started moving when it was not intended to move,” he said.

Apparently, alert American troops managed to quell the traitorous would-be droid assassins before the inevitable orgy of mechanised slaughter began. Fahey didn’t say just how, but conceivably the rogue robots may have been suppressed with help from more trustworthy airborne kill machines, or perhaps prototype electropulse zap bombs.

No humans were hurt, but it seems that the struggle was sufficiently terrifying that it may be some time before American troops are ready to fight alongside robots again.

As Fahey pointed out, “once you’ve done something that’s really bad, it can take 10 or 20 years to try it again”. That said, it seems he expects to deploy a new and more trustworthy armed ground automaton within a year – perhaps the MAARS [Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System], an upgraded SWORDS packing a heavier 7.62mm machine-gun and featuring improved safety features.

MAARS is also said by its makers to have “Transformer-like” abilities akin to those of Optimus Prime. Rather than being able to disguise itself as, say, a mobility scooter or a dessert trolley, the MAARS is actually only able to transform – with help from human allies – into a slightly different robot.

The Pop Mech analysts consider that the rattled GIs in Iraq are just being silly.

And if you check the Pop Mech link, you’ll find that one firm that designed a warbot used in Iraq is actually called iRobot—although CCNews (Sept. 20, 2006) informs us that iRobot’s device is the PackBot, used mostly for reconnaissance, while the deadlier SWORD is designed by Foster-Miller, also of Massachusetts. The Register informs us that Foster-Miller was recently purchased by the UK’s Qinetiq—whose name takes a tip from Ian Fleming rather than Isaac Asimov.

See our last posts on Iraq and the robots.

  1. We knew it was too good to be true
    From Wired, April 15:

    “The whole thing is an urban legend,” says Foster Miller spokesperson Cynthia Black, of the reports about SWORDS moving its gun without a command.

    There were three cases of uncommanded movements, but all three were prior to the 2006 safety certification, she says. “One case involved a loose wire. So, now there is now redundant wiring on every circuit. One involved a solder, a connection that broke. everything now is double-soldered.” The third case was a test were the robot was put on a 45 degree hill and left to run for two and a half hours. “When the motor started to overheat, the robot shut the motor off, that caused the robot to slide back down the incline,” she says. “Those are the three uncommanded movements.”

    Of course, another thing working against this “Terminator robot out of control” story are indications that the armed robots have not really seen any action in Iraq (i.e. aren’t really being used). And if they were to be used, it’s worth repeating that these are not exactly fearsome Terminators.

    “It can’t shoot anyone [without orders],” Black says. “It’s not an autonomous vehicle.”

    Although this could be just Asimovian robotopianism…