- Materials & Industrial Technology
Military Robots That Hunt For Food
Development is continuing on a robot that “eats” in order to generate its power, allowing it to perform extensive duties without the necessity of constantly being refueled. Robotic Technology Inc. (RTI), a Washington DC-based corporation, has been working on its Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, a clever if somewhat convoluted name which can then be shortened to EATR. The project is funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the government's main long-term military research agency, the folks who laid the groundwork for GPS, the Internet, etc.
EATR's Cyclone Engine
EATR is a steam-powered, biomass-eating military robot which will be capable of autonomous actions (without human control) extending over large distances and periods of time. EATR has a robotic arm, including a chainsaw, to gather and prepare biomass and place it into a Cyclone Engine (made by Cyclone Power Technologies) where it is ignited, generating steam and thus power in a closed-loop system. In addition to foraging, EATR will also use other fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil and solar energy.
Roaming For Months
The advantage such a robot would have over other, more conventional robots, would be that it could roam for months without having to be refueled or serviced. The EATR platform could be used for transport (a “mule”), a communications center, a gun platform, etc. Despite its obvious military purpose, Robot Technologies prefers to think of it as a benign artificial creature that forages for its energy.
Uproar Over Corpse-Eating Robots
While thousands of robots are now in military service in the air and on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan or patrolling borders (the Israelis use robots on their border), EATR seems to have struck a nerve. Some envision robots stripping vegetation indiscriminately as more and more are “released” into the wild, but the biggest uproar is the thought of robots eating corpses of dead soldiers, with the next step being energy-starved robots in a desert with no vegetation and only live humans. It is quite a leap from “grazing” to “killing” but look how far computing has come-- from room-sized behemoths printing reports to literally billions of computers that fit in your pocket, controlling communications, finances, security, recognizing people, running robots...
Robotic Technology's Response...
There was so much such speculation when EATR was announced in 2009 that Robotic Technology issued a response to rumors of a “Flesh Eating” military robot:
“This robot is strictly vegetarian [bold by RTI]... Despite the far-reaching reports that this includes 'human bodies,' the public can be assured that the engine Cyclone has developed to power the EATR runs on fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings and wood chips... Desecration of the dead is a war crime under Article 15 of the Geneva Conventions, and is certainly not something sanctioned by DARPA, Cyclone or RTI... 'We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,' stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO.”
Dr. Bob Finkelstein, president of RTI also said the EATR would be programmed to recognize specific fuel sources and avoid others. “If it’s not on the menu, it’s not going to eat it.”
… Could Have Been Stronger
RTI's response might not have been as reassuring as they wished:
According to RTI's own website, the Cyclone engine can run on more than twigs, grass and wood chips. It can run on any solid, liquid or gaseous fuel: biomass, agricultural waste, coal, municipal trash, kerosene, ethanol, diesel, gasoline, heavy fuel, chicken fat [bold by author], palm oil, cottonseed oil, algae oil, hydrogen, propane, etc. –individually or in combination. Animal fat could also presumably be used.
“Desecration of the dead is a war crime” is true, but the fact that is not “sanctioned”, the fact that it would be “wrong” is not all that reassuring either, given the fact that we have chemical and biological weapons that “should” not be used.
“It is not our mission [to have robots feeding on humans].” They won't do it because they haven't been asked?
“If it's not on the menu...”. Programs are buggy; programs can be changed.
The Three Laws of Robotics
There are so many loopholes in the response, it reads like a congressional bill. Nowhere do they say “EATR Shall Not Feed on Animals or Humans, Dead or Alive. Ever. Period”. What if they did say that? Would it make any difference? Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction author, developed the Three laws of Robots:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Given that there are already so many military robots, some armed, some autonomous, it may be too late to put the genie back into the bottle. There hasn't been much in the news since 2010 about EATR, but, according to RTI's website, EATR is still a viable project and still funded by DARPA. While it is probably safe to assume that EATR robots will not dine on corpses or worse, will people turn a blind eye on future generations of robots in the name of national security?