The US ARMY's robots
Wage war with machines or become one
Streaming information and lost bullets
For the majority of young Westerners, war is generally a completely abstract concept. And yet, it is ubiquitous in our daily life, in history books, documentaries, video games and, on occasion, these generic images in black and green of aerial bombardments, often taken on the fly and at night by the « shooters » themselves.
Still, wars carry within them the germ of this urgent sentiment which takes hold of public opinion and people and makes them say stop and to demand an end to wars. Beyond all logic, we – the dirty descendants addicted to this evil drug we call « streaming information » – have the tendency to forget that the problem with wars is that they always end up by taking lives. Lost bullets, shells, mortars, grenades. Probably all the letters that make up these very words are statistically so many fallen, inert bodies, fallen at the altar of belligerent ideologies in precisely the second it took you to read them.
Faced by this terrible fact – yes my dear lady, yes my little man, war kills men – the « thinking » heads in the American army, an entity destined to fight a perpetual war, are constantly looking forward to the time when wars will be fought ad vitam æternam, without soldiers falling to enemy bullets. And the solution has been found: send robots to the battlefield. Which is a good thing as the possibilities are infinite.
Option 1: Transporting stuff without taking any risk
By sending soldiers into possible hostile territory such as the tribal areas in Afghanistan, the « allies » expose themselves to two types of danger: the ambush and all types of explosives, hidden and ready to go off the moment someone gets too close.
To counter this double threat, the US Army is strongly urging its suppliers to work on solutions that would maximally limit the loss of human lives. The result is K-Max, a remotely controlled robot helicopter which can lift almost three tons. With two prototypes developed and tested since last December, the machine is designed to aid the Marines in some of their day-to-day operations, especially in moving equipment without putting pilots' lives in danger.
Designed by Lockheed Martin Corp. – the American defense and security giant – in partnership with Kaman Aerospace, K-Max has ensured the two companies a nice little package deal worth 47 million dollars in 2010. And Lockheed, a real insatiable war monster, has even won a second contract, for the same little toy, of another 47 million dollars in October 2011. Not pilot on board, only fat suitcases filled with notes.
Option 2: Avoid hitting a snag...
The iRobot company has supplied two thousand five hundred PackBot 510s: small, tracked vehicles which are sent to scout the area that the army is about to enter. Equipped with cameras and detectors, these robots – which run on diesel, there is no economizing in times of crisis – are extremely effective bomb detectors. As for usage – nothing very complicated for an army known to be weaned on technology – soldiers can control them with a device that looks suspiciously like an X-Box console. War, this video game.
Option 3: ...but never without my dog.
Had you seen this video, you would definitely remember – despite the thousands you go through every year: circa 2008, a somewhat disturbing four-legged prototype of a robotic animal with a particularly strident cry wandering through a muddy forest or a parking lot, with people kicking him. A creation by raving lunatics in quest of something incomprehensible, is what was said at the time.
Well, this thing was called AlphaDog and since the above video, Boston Dynamics, the company which designed it, has considerably improved the beast which, in reality, is an autonomous robot meant for the military. Just as in the case of K-Max, its main aim is to do half the American soldier's work for him. The dog is used as a mule for carrying several kilos of equipment on its back, even on extremely rough terrain.
Obviously, as yet Alphadog is no more than a somewhat stupid dog, only capable of carrying stuff and following the directions laid down by its masters. But Boston Dynamics' ambition – or, more likely, the US Army's specifications – goes much further. For Darpa, The Pentagon's research and development agency, the driving idea is to transform what for the moment resembles a camel into a dog capable of interacting with soldiers and of being trained exactly as one would any ordinary dog. One is not as yet at the stage of « stop », « stand » and « shake hands », but that is the aim. A question arises: will the Taliban unsheathe Canigou Partners to soothe the beast?
Option 4: The Avatar project
With Avatar, an ersatz Pocahontas, James Cameron came up with an interesting idea: to associate a human to a second body and send it to the front without the risk of him being shot on the battlefield. And obviously it seems to have pleased the « thinking heads » in the American High Command. Darpa, the above-mentioned research agency, has just announced a few days back that it would allocate the paltry sum of seven million dollars in 2013 – on a total budget of 2.8 billion – on a program which closely resembles the concept behind the American blockbuster.
Darpa would thus like to develop interfaces and algorithms which would help create a one-to-one correspondence between a flesh-and-blood soldier and a semi-autonomous bipedal machine which would become his alter-ego on the battlefield. According to Darpa's notes as revealed by Wired, « the robot should be intelligent and skilled ». Following his human handler's orders, it should be capable of « securing a room, of staying on watch duty » and even of « retrieving casualties in the field ». On the other hand, nothing is known about the risk of ending up by preferring to abandon one's human shell and going over to the enemy in order to remain a robot all one's life. Just as in Avatar.
Option 5: And Human in all this?
In August 2005, Claudia Mitchell, a young American Marine who had lost an arm in a motorcycle accident, was approached by researchers from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to test a revolutionary arm prosthesis. Wired to an impressive bank of electronic components, Claudia's prosthesis allows her today to move the arm and the wrist spontaneously, and also to receive tactile information regarding pressure, temperature and the position of the fingers and joints on her biomechanical prosthesis.
The former Marine can now write, sip from a glass or hold things with her index and thumb. Since 2002, more than fifty American veterans like Claudia Mitchell have received ever-more advanced prototypes, all designed by the genius of the American doctor Todd Kuiken. He has developed an impressive technology, « the Re-innervation of the Target Muscle », which works by re-routing brain signals by diverting nerves towards the muscles still intact. These muscles then become biological amplifiers, and people who never thought they would use their arm again can once more drink a pint, fondle their wife and do the dishes. One has just to accept becoming a cyborg.