Dawn of the Kill-Bots: the Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arming of AI (part 2)

Part 2: The Past — Robot Etymology, Brief History and Military Classification

Contrary to what popular intuition may dictate the idea of thinking machines or artificial beings has existed for millennia. Some of the first examples can be found in the ancient Greek myths and legends such as the bronze giant Talos of Crete and the golden mechanical servants of Hephaestus.

Artificial mechanical beings or, as we now commonly call them, robots have appeared in numerous forms and functions in modern popular culture: as a servant – R2D2 in Star Wars, as a fellow comrade – Data in Star Trek, and as both an exterminator and savior – in the Terminator series. Of course, it is not hard to notice that all of the above cases are entirely fictional for they are either ancient Greek Mythology or modern Hollywood science fiction. Yet, what is science fiction one day may well turn out to be reality the next one.

Today, production lines for virtually any large scale commodity are dominated by robots that do the majority of operations within the production process and play a vital part in our

Roomba (CC) Larry D. Moore or GFDL photo by Larry D. Moore
Roomba (CC) Larry D. Moore

globalized capitalist mode of production. It is no surprise then that robots have been migrating from the production lines into every other aspect of our lives. According to Dr. Rodney Brooks, CFO and co-founder of iRobot Corporation, in 2002 there were almost no robots in people’s homes. By 2007, in just five years, his company produced and sold over 2.5 million home clean-bots. From the artificial baby-seal robot Paro, through the iRobot Roomba/Scoomba Vacuum-Bots and the home-made vigilante Bum-Bot in Atlanta, to the deadly Predator and Reaper drones, there seems to be no human activity that will not be soon impacted by robots to one degree or another. In fact the South Korean government aims to put a robot in every house there by 2015 or 2020.

So before we move on to a brief time-line of robotic development let us look at the etymology of the term. The word robot was introduced in the 1920s by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play was situated on an island-factory for “artificial people” that Čapek called robots,  and those robots were manufactured so well that they could be mistaken for real human beings. Čapek’s robots could think autonomously for themselves, yet at least for a while they seemed to be happy serving their human masters.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the term robot let us look at a brief timeline of some of the major relevant events within the history of robotic and especially military robotic development. As mentioned earlier the idea for robots can be traced back 3,000 years ago to the ancient Greek myths and legends. Arguably, around that time, similar ideas appear in Ancient Egyptian, Judaic and Chinese writings.

For example, in ancient China in the Lie Zi text, there is a description of an encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023 – 957 BC) and the “artificer” (i.e. what we will call today a mechanical engineer) Yan Shi. Yan Shi created a human size mechanical figure which was allegedly able to walk, dance, sing and even flirt with the court ladies. Later examples can be found in Ancient Greece as long ago as the 4th century BC, when the Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum postulated a mechanical bird he called “the Pigeon” which was propelled by a steam engine. Ctesibium and Hero of Alexandria are two other examples of ancient Greek inventors who allegedly created several automatons at least one of which was supposedly able to speak.

In the middle ages it was the Muslim world where one could find the most sophisticated and impressive automatons and in his Book of Stones the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan published recipes for creating artificial snakes, scorpions and even humans. Another Muslim inventor was Al-Jazari (1136-1206) who designed and constructed a number of automatic machines, among which most notably was the first programmable humanoid robot in 1206 – a boat with four automated musicians playing music to entertain guests at royal drinking parties.

In the west, one of the first recorded designs of a humanoid robot was made by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) around 1495. Da Vinci had detailed drawings of a mechanical knight but it is not known whether he attempted to actually build his robot or not. Later on in 1738 Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that was able to eat and digest grain, flap its wings, and even excrete. In the east, in 19th century Japan the brilliant craftsman Hisashige Tanaka created an array of extremely complex mechanical toys, some of which were capable of serving tea, firing arrows, or even painting. It has to be noted though that even thought automatons were the closest things to robots, and while they may have looked humanoid, and their movements were complex, they were not capable of adapting to their environment, re-adjusting their movement, self-control or decision making. Arguably, progress on those issues began in the United States in 1898 when Nikola Tesla publicly demonstrated a radio-controlled boat, which was probably the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Tesla hoped to develop his ROV into a wireless torpedo used as a weapon by the US Navy, though despite its impressiveness his ROV was not adopted.

British soldiers with captured German Goliath remote-controlled demolition vehicles (Battle of Normandy, 1944).
British soldiers with captured German Goliath UGV

The first Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) was the German Goliath used in WWII. While in essence it was little more than a tracked mine, that looked like a small tank without the turret, it was mobile, remotely operated and packed quite a punch so the Wehrmacht used it to clear mines and bunkers. On the eastern front Russian teletanks were among the first armed UGVs for they had machine guns, flamethrowers, smoke canisters and explosive charges.

It proved easier for engineers to build unmanned vehicles that go through the air than unmanned vehicles that move on the ground. As far back as the late 1930s, the U.S. Navy and Air Force used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as target drones. Thanks to the success and reliability of those drones, the military began looking for other ways to use the planes and reconnaissance was an obvious alternative. By the 1960s and especially in the 1970s American UAV’s collected intelligence on targets in Vietnam, China and North Korea. Thus at least until the late 1980s UGVs were far behind UAVs in terms of development, but by the early 1990s they begun catching up. Unmanned ground vehicles such as the Robotic Ranger (an armed moving platform) and the ROBAT (a modified M-60 tank meant for mine clearing) were funded by the US government and were tested by Foster-Miller Inc. Those ground robots, together with the UAVs and the more recent UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles)  laid the foundation for the future expansion of robots within the US military. Each of the above three different types of robot technologies is designed for a specific realm of the battlefield and will take increasingly important roles within the US military planning, development and deployment in the twenty first century.

End of Part 2 (see Part 1; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5)

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