I see dead blogs

Soldier-robot love

I’ve blogged and written journalism regularly about people’s emotional relationships with robots and artificial life forms. But the Washington Post just published one of the best things I’ve ever read on the subject — a feature article by Joel Garreau on the emotional relationships between today’s soldiers and the many robots they use to keep themselves alive.

It opens up with a story about how an army roboticist was testing a clever new design for a robot modeled on centipede — which explodes land mines by intentionally stepping on them:

At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.

Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.

The human in command of the exercise, however — an Army colonel — blew a fuse.

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What’s wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

Awesome. And the article gets better and better — and more and more surreal — from there on in. Garreau reports on soldiers who award “purple hearts” to their bomb-defusing robots that get injured; soldiers who describe in details the personality quirks of their ‘bots (“Sometimes you get a robot that comes in and it does a little dance, or a karate chop, instead of doing what it’s supposed to do”); soldiers that take their robots on furlough, to give them “rest”.

As Garreau points out, the army’s use of robots has a cyborgic element: It’s sometimes hard to tell where the robot ends and the human begins. He tells the story of a Predator drone pilot who crash-landed a damaged Predator, and in the seconds before the crash, unconsciously lunged beneath his seat: “He had bonded so tightly with the machine hundreds of miles away that he was searching for the lever that would allow him to eject.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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