Do you remember seeing your first Terminator movie, and getting that creepy, itchy, uncomfortable feeling at the thought of a piece of autonomous intelligent machinery killing humans with electronic efficiency? It's not quite time to worry about that possible future yet—but there are a number of developments in robot evolution that might give you pause for thought.
Since first used in World War I (yes, even back then), robots have become an increasingly useful tool on the battlefield. Back then they were simple devices like the remote-controlled tracked Goliath robot (See video below.) developed in Germany to act as a "smart mine." There are certain situations that are too dangerous for a human, hence the need for expendable robots. And there are some things that a robot is actually better at.
That's why we hear so much about Predators and Global Hawks nowadays. Both are unmanned aerial vehicles that can be programmed to fly to specific areas and gather intelligence, loitering there for hours—all the while putting themselves at a risk you'd never expose a human-crewed aircraft to. (See video below.) And with the addition of rockets, the UAVs become Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles—Predators carrying Hellfire rockets are currently being used in a fight against the Taliban in border zones of Pakistan.
Then think of the ground-based robots like Talon and Swords (Video below.)—these systems are seeing deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan today. They're essentially smart systems with human remote-control authority—small tracked vehicles with a mechanical tool arm that is useful for investigating suspicious devices, and in the case of Swords of firing rounds at concealed targets or to detonate IEDs. They're effective, they expand the capabilities of the military, and they save human lives.
As such, you may think these 'bots are a long way from the human-destroying Terminators. And they are, in the main—despite an odd moment when a Swords robot was reported to have fired on its own controllers. But take a look at Big Dog.
It's been designed to act as an autonomous troop-assist robot, and it's smart. Damn smart. Smart enough to be able to trot over almost any terrain, even slippery ice or steep inclines, all by itself—and carrying a pack load that surpasses what a human could heft.
Its being developed by Boston Dynamics and at its core is a very Terminator-sounding tech: biomimicry. We're not talking of the artificial skin of a T-800, but about a system that uses natural-world inventions to solve technological problems. In Big Dog's case, it employs the sure-footedness of a four-legged horse and the master-servant relationship of a dog—it'll follow its "owner" troops wherever it's needed. Inside it sophisticated systems keep it balanced, and control its legs to successfully navigate the ground. It's motion is almost tangibly animal-like.Then check out a slightly different form of biomimicry: Bioassist.
The Sarcos-Raytheon XOS suit is a robotic exo-skeleton that multiplies the power and endurance of a human body. By expending only the smallest amount of energy to operate its controls, a human can lift and crush and push objects that would defeat whole teams of men. Imagine a squadron of exoskeleton troops, stomping across an urban battlefield, tearing their way into buildings and pushing roadblocks aside with a wave of a claw and you should get that Terminator creepiness. Particularly if you imagine generation 600 of these machines without a human operator inside. After all, artificial intelligence is still developing.
For the most part the robots mentioned so far aren't very physically adept—a Predator can't fly as well as an eagle, a bioassist claw is nowhere near as mechanically clever as a human hand. But biomimicry is not only being developed for war. Check out Dean Kamen's Luke arm project .
The goal is to help war veterans who've lost a limb in battle—it's named for Luke Skywalker's robot limb from Star Wars. And the Luke arm is incredible: It's the most sophisticated synthetic limb in the world, close to being as dexterous as a flesh and blood arm. Its control system is cleverly wired into the nervous and muscular system of its user so that it's essentially thought controlled. And its such a "natural" system that Kamen reports seeing a user drink a cup of coffee with the Luke hand and then deposit the cup on a nearby table without looking, all while carrying on a conversation. Though that's a meaningless physical act for able-bodied people, think about the man-machine synthesis that's going on here.
The Luke arm is all about smart engineering and programming, but consider this artificial heart design for some really eerie biomimicry. Developed by France's leading cardiac surgeon Alan Carpentier, and Euro defense and aerospace company EADS, it beats almost exactly like a real human heart so it won't present such a stress to the transplantee's system. To get around the problem of clotting on the mechanical device, it includes a "pseudo-skin" covering—a biosynthetic, microporous material.
Perhaps the ultimate humanoid robot existing today is Honda's Asimo. It's not far from being what we'd call an android. He can walk, run, navigate autonomously, decide the best way to achieve a goal, speak, take spoken commands, react to unexpected situations, climb stairs, carry objects and even conduct orchestras.
Honda foresees a future where Asimos are a part of everyday life, acting as butlers, servants and perhaps even child-minders. Wary of the potential sci-fi creepiness of such a smart machine Honda's even designed it to look "soft" and friendly and reduced its size to almost child-sized proportions as the design has evolved.
Not getting "You're Terminated" chills yet? Then Imagine an Asimo with the strength of Big Dog, the power of the exo-suit and dexterous limbs like the Luke arm—repurposed into a role that Talon currently occupies. It's the robot soldier of the future, and under the auspices of concealed military research, such a technological fusion is extremely possible. Call it the T1, and teach it battlefield morals, if you like. Flock the sky with smart drone vehicles armed to the teeth that communicate wirelessly with other flying or ground-based surveillance bots and military satellites. And then imagine something going wrong.