Since Robby the Robot first appeared on screen in 1956s Forbidden Planet, science fiction in print, film and on television has pushed the limits of our imagination regarding machines of the future and their abilities to perform human tasks.
From Star Wars to The Terminator, Junkyard Wars and Robot Warriors, our glimpse at the potential for tomorrow has amazed and sometimes stunned us.
Well, get ready. The future may be closer than you think.
Project Alpha, a U.S. Joint Forces Command rapid idea analysis group, is in the midst of a study focusing on the concept of developing and employing robots that would be capable of replacing humans to perform many, if not most combat functions on the battlefield.
The study, appropriately titled, Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop, suggests that by as early as 2025, the presence of autonomous robots, networked and integrated, on the battlefield might not be the exception, but, in fact, the norm.
In support of the study, USJFCOM sponsored a workshop at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore July 29 through August 1. The workshop, featuring key speakers who are experts in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence, was designed to develop a skeletal operational concept for the employment of autonomous machines and to raise awareness throughout DoD about current robotic technology and its future potential on the battlefield.
The goal of the study, according to Gordon Johnson, the Unmanned Effects Team leader for Project Alpha, was to articulate a vision for the use of robotic forces and promote the formation of a Department of Defense-level office that will coordinate and integrate efforts across the armed services, ultimately resulting in joint-service development of unmanned effects (UFX), rather than the course of service-centric research that currently exists.
What weve found in the area of robotics, is that the Navy has programs, the Air Force has programs, the Army has programs, Johnson said. But theres no one at the DoD level who has a clear vision of where were going to go with these things. How do we want them to interoperate? How do we want them to communicate with each other? How do we want them to interact with humans?
Across the Department of Defense, people dont really have the big picture. They dont understand how close we really are to being able to implement these technologies in some sort of cohesive way into a cohesive force to achieve the desired effects.
The vision that Johnson wants the study to articulate outlines the many useful capabilities that will be available in robots before 2025. Characteristics of a tactical autonomous combatant (TAC) would include the ability to work in ground, air, space, or undersea environments, and in harsh conditions such as extreme heat or cold. In addition, TACs, unlike humans, would be able to operate in chemically, biologically, or radiologically contaminated environments.
We call them tactical autonomous combatants because theyll operate largely autonomously with some limited human supervision, explained Johnson. Were talking about, where we can and where we have the capability of replacing humans. Were not talking about the operational level or strategic level, but at the tactical level, still using humans where we need to. Using adjustable autonomy or supervised autonomy, humans will still have to interact with the machines and help guide them.