Quentin Hardy
May 15, 2009

We are surrounded by robots, from automated dogs and vacuum cleaners at home to assistants in operating rooms and on the factory floor. The most influential (and the greatest number) of these robots, however, are in a place few Americans see: the battlefield. More than anything, robots are changing the way war works.

[efoods]On Saturday, thousands of Americans will go on U.S. military bases to commemorate Armed Forces Day, designated to honor current American servicemen and show off some of our state of the art weaponry. As never before, people may see flying drones, observation craft, bomb disposers, automated machine guns, independently operating submarines, even (if they see experimental devices) war bots that bounce, crawl or burrow. Some deliver sensory data to soldiers, while others carry out instructions to kill.

Robotics in war is the most important change in major human activity dating back at least 5,000 years, according to P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

“Every mission [that] soldiers go out on in Iraq, there’s something (automated) flying over them, maybe an unmanned vehicle scouting ahead of them,” Singer says. “When they shoot, the key is what they put their laser on for a drone to fire at. … The story of the surge is not the additional troops, it’s the air strikes (by machines like Predator drones) going up by a huge amount.”

The numbers illustrate this: With the U.S. military budget likely to fall, spending on robotic systems is steadily rising, even as–thanks to Moore’s Law and plain old engineering–the machines are getting cheaper. In 2003, there were barely any ground-based robots in Iraq, the kind of small, treaded vehicles used to look for insurgents and disarm explosives. Today there are over 12,000.

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