As Military Robots Increase, So Does the Complexity of Their Relationship With Soldiers

The land-robot 'teleMAX' of German company telerob drives during a trial at the German army base on May 18, 2010 in Hammelburg, Germany. ELROB provides an overview of the current state of affairs in European unmanned system technology and to evaluate commercial off-the-shelf products for military use. It is to show what is feasible in robotics, to support technological developments in Europe, and to find solutions for the current military challenges. Ralph Orlowski/Getty

For a glimpse at the future of human-robot interactions, it might be better to look at what's happening in the United States military than analyzing Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix's character falls in love with an OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Throughout every department of our armed forces, autonomous robots are playing a larger role in every aspect of warfare than ever before, and soldiers are developing some unorthodox relationships with their machines. Just ask Danielle.

Danielle was a TALON, a remotely operated robot used for reconnaissance in combat, as well as in tough-to-reach terrain like rocky canyons and caves. Connor, an Army sergeant, recalled that while deployed in Afghanistan, soldiers had to hole up inside their trucks each night, packing several humans as well as piles of equipment including robots into a small space. "Everything had to be locked up, so our TALON was in the center aisle of our truck," he recalls. "Our junior guy named it Danielle so he'd have a woman to cuddle with at night." Sadly, the romance was not to last: "Danielle got blown up," Connor says.

Just as World War II pilots gave their planes names like Memphis Belle, and decorated them with nose art, today's soldiers are naming their robots after movie stars, musicians and ex-girlfriends. Brady, another Army sergeant, called his TALON Elly. "I talked to her, when I was at the controls. I'd be coaxing her, 'C'mon honey,'" he says. "They're kind of part of the family." Ben, an Air Force staff sergeant, says that when one robot was detonated by an IED, his team "recovered the components, the carcass, if you will, and brought it back to base. The next day there was a sign out in front that said, 'Why did you kill me? Why?' "

From holding elaborate funerals for robots, complete with 21-gun salutes, valor medals, and memorial markers, to identifying with them as "an extension of our own personality," as Simon, a Marine sergeant, says, soldiers are now working effectively with robots on a more intimate level than in perhaps any other field, saving human lives in the process. The anecdotes above are from a series of interviews by University of Washington PhD Julie Carpenter, who studies human-robot interaction (the subjects' names were changed to preserve their anonymity). The explosive ordnance disposal personnel Carpenter interviewed were, she says, "treating robots in ways that don't fit neatly into how we treat other tools."

These human-machine relationships are likely to become more prevalent as the military funds the development of new autonomous robotic systems. Through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - which is responsible for innovations like the early Internet and global positioning systems - and private contractors like Boston Dynamics - which was recently acquired by Google - the military is already well on its way to developing functional humanoid robots as well as vehicle drones that could kill enemies autonomously. But no matter how threatening futuristic drones seem, barriers such as the military's slow technology acquisition process, a lack of experimentation and a generation gap between young soldiers and officers are standing in the way of robots entering the battlefield. The reality of military robotic warfare is less Terminator and more Short Circuit.

Robots first made their way onto the battlefield in 2002. Bruce Jette, the founder of the Army's technology development Rapid Equipping Force (REF) group, noticed that soldiers in Afghanistan were clearing cave complexes with "guys throwing grappling hooks, the same way as 2,000 years ago," recalls Peter Newell, a former REF director. The force's first task was developing machines that could help those soldiers.

According to the Department of Defense, robots are perfect for missions that fall into three alliterative categories: dull, dirty and dangerous. Disposal of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ticks all three boxes. While Iraq was mostly a road-bound war that relied on tanks, the 2009 surge in Afghanistan required a different approach. Insurgents simply "quit attacking big vehicles on the road with IEDs and attacked dismounted guys with no protection," Newell says. Soldiers were stuck waving mine detectors back and forth in front of them for hours at a time, he recalls. There had to be a better way to counter the bombs.

REF found that pressures of 38 to 54 pounds per square inch were required to detonate an IED - far lighter than a soldier in full gear at 90 pounds per square inch. What Newell and his team ended up with was something like a Bobcat tractor with a robotics kit plugged in. They built 60 of the semiautonomous robots and sent them into the field along with small, throwable robots called Recon Scouts. "We put those into service two years ago. I asked how many have been damaged, turned in, and the answer I got back was none," Newell says - meaning that none of the scouts had malfunctioned and all were still in active use.

Robots became a part of soldiers' vocabularies. That meant success stories like Sergeant Talon, a TALON robot that, as Sergeant Michael Maxson explained in The Washington Post, "always got the job done. He took a couple of detonations in front of his face and didn't stop working." The team awarded the machine fake Purple Hearts and promoted it to the rank in its name. Other robots didn't fare so well. One Reddit user recalled a robot that he referred to as "sh**head," which "did us as much harm as good." "It would frequently accelerate for no reason, steer whichever way it wanted, stop... this thing was crying wolf left and right." The team eventually drove it straight onto a known IED. "This time, he was a force for good," the soldier wrote.

Newell doesn't see an understanding of the pace of innovation in the Defense Department's plans for robotics. He says it isn't funding systems that are flexible enough to stay useful as technology changes. "Robotic technology is on a near vertical climb. If you put a lot of money into any one thing, by the time you develop it and turn it into a program and deploy it's going to be obsolete," he says. "That's the challenge - it just takes too long to incorporate relevant emerging technology to the battlefield."

One way to improve this is to give soldiers a chance to develop the machines they use in the field. "There are soldiers sitting in the barracks building their own robots," Newell reports. "I don't think we have done a good enough job taking advantage of [their] creative capacity when it comes to the design and use of robotics."

"I would like to see in-the-field testing with more operators, letting them determine best uses," says Benjamin Kohlmann, a Navy innovation and concepts officer as well as the founder of the military innovation group Disruptive Thinkers. Kohlmann has led experiments like placing 3-D printers with Navy sailors to see how troops incorporate new technology. He believes the military needs "a hacker-type culture to proliferate."

While younger soldiers build robots in their spare time, the military's officer classes, who command the use of machines in the field, still aren't used to their metallic colleagues. There's "distrust from the older generation," Kohlmann says. "The senior leaders who can use them for tactical advantage don't trust them enough. It's hard to change the hardwiring of someone who has been there for 25 years."

Among the military's young generation of robot fanatics are Matthew Hipple and David Blair. Hipple is a founder of the Center for International Maritime Security, a naval innovation think tank, and Blair is an associate editor there. Both have experience in the armed forces. Blair argues that the hysteria over airborne drones, perhaps the military's best-known type of active robot, misses the fact that robots have long been a part of warfare. "We treat military robotics like it's this novel thing. We miss how ubiquitous it already is in everyone's lives." Hipple points out that in aircraft like the F-35, the pilot is an equal partner with the plane's computer-automated systems - "he can't function without them."

Blair sees the relationship between soldiers and machines as complementary. "Human beings are good at heuristics, computers are good at algorithms. With increased automation in the battle space...what we're seeing now is a renegotiation of the boundary between the two."

Yet despite the newness of the technology, procedural glitches are coming more from the human side of the equation than machine. "One of the jokes of the Predator drone [pilot] community is, for a robotic airplane, how come all my problems have to do with people?" Blair says. Since drone pilots work in an office rather than a cockpit, they fall much more directly under the supervision of their officers than an airborne pilot does. "You find most of your time is spent managing all these different networks of people," rather than focusing on the work at hand, he explains. "People think it's about the human-machine interface, but it's almost always about the human-human interface."

The military doesn't see robots supplanting people in the armed forces. When asked if machines would replace soldiers in the field, Army Rapid Equipping Force project manager Tami Johnson said that their robotics initiatives from the Defense Department are "intended not to reduce the number of soldiers necessary, but to reduce soldier load or burden."

The real future lies not with robot-fighters but in a more collaborative environment in which humans work with the machines that assist them. Right now, it's people who are getting in the way.