The US army’s desire to develop a multi-robot pursuit system paints a rather bleak future for humanity. After successfully organizing the GRAND and URBAN Challenges with the goal of developing technologies for autonomous driving military vehicles and sponsoring the development of remote-controlled robots for surveillance and also the detection and destruction of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the army now has published a call for proposals for the development of robotic systems that (as the New Scientist puts it) will be able to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs.
There are many research efforts within robotics in path planning, exploration, and mapping of indoor and outdoor environments. Operator control units are available that allow semi-autonomous map-based control of a team of robots. While the test environments are usually benign, they are slowly becoming longer and more complex. There has also been significant research in the game theory community involving pursuit/evasion scenarios. This topic seeks to merge these research areas and develop a software/hardware suit that would enable a multi-robot team, together with a human operator, to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject.
The emphasis on the phrase “non-cooperative human subject” is mine and this is the one phrase that really scares me and should scare the rest of you as well. Notice, that the proposal does not specify that the target is a combatant but rather any non-cooperative human. In other words, assuming that such a system is eventually developed (and it certainly will be developed sooner or later,) there is nothing to prevent the army from using it against the average citizen who happens to disagree with the status quo. Experts interviewed by New Scientist agree that it won’t be long before these robots are equipped with weapons and their mission upgraded from finding a subject to terminating him/her!
In addition, I find Phase III of the proposal rather interesting and conflicting with the project description quoted above. Specifically, it says,
Robots that can intelligently and autonomously search for objects have potential commercialization within search and rescue, fire fighting, reconnaissance, and automated biological, chemical and radiation sensing with mobile platforms.
People in need of rescue are not normally non-cooperative. If I am inside a burning building with no hope for escaping then I would do everything in my power to help a human or robot team find me!
The research topic of multi-robot pursuit/evasion is definitely interesting but the ultimate application of detecting non-cooperative human subjects scares me more than anything else I have seen recently.