Autonomous weapon systems—commonly known as killer robots—may have killed human beings for the first time ever last year, according to a recent United Nations Security Council report on the Libyan civil war. History could well identify this as the starting point of the next major arms race, one that has the potential to be humanity’s final one.
The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons debated the question of banning autonomous weapons at its once-every-five-years review meeting in Geneva Dec. 13-17, 2021, but didn’t reach consensus on a ban. Established in 1983, the convention has been updated regularly to restrict some of the world’s cruelest conventional weapons, including land mines, booby traps and incendiary weapons.
Autonomous weapon systems are robots with lethal weapons that can operate independently, selecting and attacking targets without a human weighing in on those decisions. Militaries around the world are investing heavily in autonomous weapons research and development. The U.S. alone budgeted US$18 billion for autonomous weapons between 2016 and 2020.
A machine touted as the world’s most advanced humanoid robot “freaked out” its creators after it reacted with visible irritation and grabbed the hand of a researcher who got into its “personal space.”
A newly posted video demonstration of the interaction shows the robot, called ‘Ameca’, tracking a moving finger before furrowing its brow and leaning back as the person’s hand comes nearer. After the researcher pokes its nose, the robot then grabs their hand and moves it away.
The impressively life-like robot, which is being developed by British firm Engineered Arts, has been billed as the “future face of robotics” and “the perfect humanoid robot platform for human-robot interaction.”
To persist, life must reproduce. Over billions of years, organisms have evolved many ways of replicating, from budding plants to sexual animals to invading viruses.
Now scientists at the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have discovered an entirely new form of biological reproduction—and applied their discovery to create the first-ever, self-replicating living robots.
The same team that built the first living robots (“Xenobots,” assembled from frog cells—reported in 2020) has discovered that these computer-designed and hand-assembled organisms can swim out into their tiny dish, find single cells, gather hundreds of them together, and assemble “baby” Xenobots inside their Pac-Man-shaped “mouth”—that, a few days later, become new Xenobots that look and move just like themselves.
And then these new Xenobots can go out, find cells, and build copies of themselves. Again and again.
“With the right design—they will spontaneously self-replicate,” says Joshua Bongard, Ph.D., a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research.
The nutrient content of our vegetables is down 40% over the last two decades and our soil health is suffering due to increasingly harsh herbicide use, according to Carbon Robotics founder Paul Mikesell. And farmers are increasingly concerned about the long-term health impacts of continually spraying chemicals on their fields.
But not weeding will cost half your crop, killing profitability.
A self-driving farm robot that kills 100,000 weeds an hour … by laser.
“We wanted [to] figure out if there’s a better way we could do this.” Mikesell told me on a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “What we discovered relatively early on is that through the use of high-powered energy systems — so, lasers, which is essentially a way of delivering targeted energy — we can kill these weeds. And we can do it with the use of our computer vision and deep learning expertise … which allows us to in real time identify what’s a weed, what’s a crop … and kill the weeds. Get rid of them.”
The Honolulu Police Department in Hawaii is using a $150,000 robot named “Spot” to take the temperatures of homeless people in its effort to combat COVID-19.
Lt. Joseph O’Neal, acting lieutenant of HPD’s community outreach unit, justified the cost, which was borne by pandemic relief funds. He argued a tool that “takes transmission out of the equation” is not “a waste” from a long-term perspective.
KHON-TV in Honolulu reported Spot, a product of Boston Dynamics, is capable of taking a person’s temperature from a distance of seven feet in a fraction of a second.
“It also has two-way communication and can deliver PPE (personal protective equipment), food and water to someone who does test positive for COVID,” the news anchor said.
The U.S. Army intends to test an entire company of unmanned combat vehicles in simulated battle next year, a wargame that leaders called unprecedented and a big step toward refining the hardware and software that will one day enable wheeled robots to take the battlefield.
Gen. Ross Coffman, the director of Army Futures Command’s Next Generation Combat Cross-Functional Team, told reporters at AUSA this week that the closest thing to the Army’s upcoming robot exercise at Fort Hood, Texas, was last year’s platoon-sized effort at Fort Carson, Colorado.
For that exercise, the Army turned some old M113 armored personnel carriers into robots. “You can imagine that if you can turn a 113, you can turn anything into a robot,” Coffman said. “We learned a ton. There were some clear winners in the technology base. There were some that weren’t as great.” Among the winners was the human-machine interface, he said.
“Now we’re moving it up to company level.” he said. “The lessons learned here, we can now then apply to a brigade and to a division and see how we want to fight with these things in the future. But I know of no country that has done above singular vehicle experiments. So, no antecedent.”
So hey they’ve started mounting sniper rifles on robodogs, which is great news for anyone who was hoping they’d start mounting sniper rifles on robodogs.
At an exhibit booth in the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting and exhibition, Ghost Robotics (the military-friendly competitor to the better-known Boston Dynamics) proudly showed off a weapon that is designed to attach to its quadruped bots made by a company called SWORD Defense Systems.
“The SWORD Defense Systems Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle (SPUR) was specifically designed to offer precision fire from unmanned platforms such as the Ghost Robotics Vision-60 quadruped,” SWORD proclaims on its website. “Chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor allows for precision fire out to 1200m, the SPUR can similarly utilize 7.62×51 NATO cartridge for ammunition availability. Due to its highly capable sensors the SPUR can operate in a magnitude of conditions, both day and night. The SWORD Defense Systems SPUR is the future of unmanned weapon systems, and that future is now.”
Israel unveiled a new remote-controlled killer robot Monday at a major weapons fair in the U.K. that human rights advocates are criticizing as an event to sell “death machines” and tools of abuse.
Developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Rex MK II is a four-wheeled vehicle mounted with two machine guns to carry out remote attacks. According to a press statement from the state-owned company announcing the release, the robot has already been sold to global customers.
The weapon was unveiled Monday at Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) in London, an event that occurs every two years and is one of the world’s biggest arms fairs. The weapons expo has faced sustained condemnation from anti-war campaigners who say it’s a venue “where those who profit from war, repression, and injustice do business.”
IAI describes the robot as an unmanned land vehicle that can carry a load of 1.3 tons and execute operations including intelligence gathering using “electro-optical sensors and radar.” It can also be used to launch attacks with “remotely controlled weapons systems including a 7.62mm machine gun” and “a cal 0.50 heavy machine gun,” the company says, and serve “as a multi-mission multi-purpose platform to support additional missions based on troops needs.”
Hawaii police are defending their use of pandemic relief funds for a robotic “police dog” made by Boston Dynamics which scans homeless people’s eyes to see if they have a fever.
“If you’re homeless and looking for temporary shelter in Hawaii’s capital, expect a visit from a robotic police dog that will scan your eye to make sure you don’t have a fever,” says a new report from Associated Press. “That’s just one of the ways public safety agencies are starting to use Spot, the best-known of a new commercial category of robots that trot around with animal-like agility.”
“Acting Lt. Joseph O’Neal of the Honolulu Police Department’s community outreach unit defended the robot’s use in a media demonstration earlier this year,” AP reports. “He said it has protected officers, shelter staff and residents by scanning body temperatures between meal times at a shelter where homeless people could quarantine and get tested for COVID-19. The robot is also used to remotely interview individuals who have tested positive.”