The Pentagon is investing roughly $1 billion over the next several years for the development of robots to be used in an array of roles alongside combat troops, Bloomberg reported.
The US military already uses robots in various capacities, such for bomb disposal and scouting, but these new robots will reportedly be able to preform more sophisticated roles including complex reconnaissance, carrying soldier's gear, and detecting hazardous chemicals.
Bryan McVeigh, the Army's project manager for force protection, told Bloomberg he has "no doubt" there will be robots in every Army formation "within five years."
"We're going from talking about robots to actually building and fielding programs. This is an exciting time to be working on robots with the Army," McVeigh said.
In April 2018, the Army awarded a $429.1 million contract to Endeavor Robotics and QinetiQ North America, both based out of Massachusetts. Endeavor has also been awarded separate contracts from the Army and Marine Corps in as the Pentagon pushes for robots in a wide range of sizes.
The introduction of more robots into combat situations is intended to not only make life easier for troops, but also protect them from potentially fatal scenarios.
The RIPSAW-MS1 demonstrates its off-road capabilities during a lanes exercise at the Fort Hood Robotics Rodeo. The RIPSAW is equipped with six claymore mines, can carry 5,000 pounds and tow multiple military vehicles. The RIPSAW is designed to be an unmanned convoy security vehicle.Photo by: (U.S. Army photo)
But there are also concerns about the rapid development of robotic technology in relation to warfare, especially in terms of autonomous robots. In short, many are uncomfortable with the notion of killer robots deciding who gets to live or die on the battlefield.
'These can be weapons of terror...'
Along these lines, over two dozen countries have called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, but the US is not among them.
In August 2017, Tesla's Elon Musk and over 100 experts sent a letter to the United Nations urging it to move toward banning lethal autonomous weapons.
"Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend," the letter said. "These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways."
In May 2018, roughly a dozen employees at Google resigned after finding out the company was providing information on its artificial intelligence technology to the Pentagon to aid a drone program called Project Maven, which is designed to help drones identify humans versus objects.
Google has reportedly defended its involvement in Project Maven to employees.
America's use of drones and drone strikes in counterterrorism operations is already a controversial topic, as many condemn the US drone program as illegal and unethical. The US continues to face criticism in relation to civilian casualties from such strikes, among other issues.
Hence, while the military is seemingly quite excited about the expansion of robots in combat situations, there is a broader debate occurring among tech experts, academics and politicians about the ethical and legal implications of robotic warfare.
The killer robots debate
Peter W. Singer, a leading expert on 21st century warfare, focuses a great deal on what is known as "the killer robots debate" in his writing and research.
"It sounds like science fiction, but it is a very real debate right now in international relations. There have been multiple UN meetings on this," Singer told Business Insider.
As Singer put it, robotic technology introduces myriad legal and ethical questions for which "we're really not all that ready."
While being dragged, 225th Engineer Brigade Soldier Sgt. Kasandra Deutsch of Pineville, La., demonstrates the power of the Talon robot.Photo by: (U.S. Army photo)
"This really comes down to, who is responsible if something goes bad?" Singer said, explaining that this applies to everything from robots in war to driverless cars. "We're entering a new frontier of war and technology and it's not quite clear if the laws are ready."
Singer acknowledges the valid concerns surrounding such technology, but thinks an all-out ban is impractical given it's hard to ban technology in war that will also be used in civilian life.
In other words, autonomous robots will likely soon be used by many of us in everyday life and it's doubtful the military will have less advanced technology than the public. Not to mention, there's already an ongoing arms race when it comes to robotic technology between the US and China, among other countries.
In Singer's words, the Pentagon is not pursuing robotic technology because "it's cool" but because "it thinks it can be applied to certain problems and help save money." Moreover, it wants to ensure the US is in a good position to defend itself from other countries developing such technology.
Singer believes it would be more practical to resolve issues of accountability, rather than pushing for a total ban. He contends the arguments surrounding this issue mirror a lot of the same concerns people had regarding the nuclear arms race not too long ago.
"I'm of the camp that I don't see as an absolute ban as possible right now. While it might be something that's great to happen I look at the broader history of weapons," he said.
Moving forward, Singer said countries might consider pushing for banning the use of such weapons in certain areas, such as cities, where the risk of killing civilians is much higher.