Empathy Toward Robots Could Impact Battlezones

Soldiers could care too much about the robots they send into battle.

The more robots become embedded in human society as toys and workers, the more people treat them like pets, friends or even as an extension of themselves. For soldiers who rely more and more on battlefield robots, researchers wondered: If a soldier attaches human or animal-like characteristics to these machines, could they care too much about the robot to send it onto a dangerous battlefield?

The answer to that question could help inform future robot design and human-robot training.

Julie Carpenter, who recently completed her doctorate in education from the University of Washington, wanted to find out, so she interviewed 23 highly trained soldiers in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. She wanted to know if a soldier's relationship with the small, tank-like robots could affect their decision-making ability and possibly compromise a mission.

Even though soldiers unanimously used the word "tool" or "mechanical" to describe robots in interviews and questionnaires, Carpenter found that many soldiers anthropomorphized the robots. The robots were assigned a male or female pronoun or named Sergeant So-and-So or after a celebrity. Because of the male-dominated environment, robots were often named after a girlfriend or wife. Soldiers posed with robots in photos and a mock funeral was even performed for one robot that was blown up beyond repair.

"It was pretty consistent, the series of emotions that soldiers would go through when a robot was disabled beyond repair -- anger, frustration and sadness for a sense of loss," Carpenter told Discovery News.

"The sense of loss was more complicated," Carpenter said. "They had trouble verbalizing that emotion. And I might add, this is a very verbal group of people."

Ultimately, Carpenter came away with the sense that a soldier's relationship with a robot did not compromise judgment on the battlefield. She said soldiers were too keenly aware of robots' capabilities and limitations and were not deluded into thinking they were human. She observed that soldiers never quite crossed that line.

"These people are so highly trained that it's very true that is does not affect them," Carpenter said. "My concern is that future robots are going to be developed with different shapes, abilities and take on different roles."

But as robots become more human, that could change, said Carpenter. "I think this is an issue people need to keep an eye on and monitor," she said.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor who studies the social-psychological aspects of human interactions with technology, says that when technology fulfills a human role, it's a natural tendency for our brain to think of that technology as human.

"In high-intensity contexts, such as military and otherwise, the social responses actually increase because your brain doesn't have as much ability to say ‘It's only a robot,'" he said. "The more intense and complex a situation, ironically, the more likely people are to develop emotional and social attachments."

Nass compares the dilemma with people who work with search-and-rescue dogs and the strong attachments they form. "As a result of that, they often become reluctant to use the dogs in those situations," he said. "The same thing can happen with robots."

Down the line, Nass suggests that aggressive policy dealing with attachment issues may need to be adopted for those who work closely with robots. "In the case of search-and- rescue dogs, you have to rotate the dogs you use so that you don't become attached," he said. "You could do the same thing with a robot."

In the long run, as robots become more intelligent and autonomous, Carpenter envisions some people will become concerned about the ethics of a robot being destroyed. But for now, she's concerned with more tangible fears.

"You don't want to have a human hesitate to put a robot in a dangerous situation when you have to make critical, split-second decisions that affect human lives," she said.

A French soldier maneuvers a remotely controlled IED detecting robot during a training exercise.

Every day brings new headlines of the warfighting capabilities of drones patrolling the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and any number of places where strife continues.

While pilots operate the drones remotely from bases back in the U.S., there are a host of smaller robots that deserve a bit of attention as well. From scrubbing barnacles off aircraft carriers to spying on bad guys from the clouds, this new class of autonomous military robot could see action on or near the battlefield in the coming year.

Here, Lance Corporal Joe Henkel checks out the MARCbot iV, a remote-controlled robot used in IED investigations.


This spherical, 54-pound bot rolls across land, mud, rocks and water with a spy camera hidden inside its fiberglass shell. An internal pendulum keeps the two cameras stabilized as the shell rotates and provides motion.

Connecticut-based American Unmanned Systems initially designed Guardbot to rove across the Martian surface for a European Space Agency mission that was later scrubbed, so president Peter Muhlrad switched to military and commercial applications, mainly guard and reconnaissance duty. It was also deployed recently by a Mexican television network during a live soccer match at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium.

Guardbot is undergoing tests by the Marines in Quantico, Va., and Camp LeJeune, N.C., Muhlrad said. An aquarium in Florida is also interested in using Guardbot to interact with its dolphins.

Argus One AUV

This 113-foot flexible airship drone "wiggles like a snake" when faced with strong winds, rather than being tossed around like a balloon, said Dan Erdberg, director of business development for World Surveillance Group Inc., based at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. That means it can hover in at 10,000 to 15,000 feet above a target with minimal effort.

The helium-filled composite material bags are covered with an outer layer of ripstop nylon. Argus One also has a stealthy, almost-zero radar footprint, making it nearly invisible while supporting a platform of high-resolution spy cameras or other remote-sensing devices, Erdberg said.

"This could dwell over an area for a long time, if it sees people you could send in one with arms," he said. "It's in the clouds and literally impossible to pick up."

Argus is undergoing tests at the Department of Energy's Nevada test facility in December (that's next door to the infamous Area 51).

Hull Bug

As any boat owner knows, scraping barnacles is the bane of a sailor's existence. But for the Navy, "marine bio-fouling" of sea grasses, barnacle colonies and tube warms costs taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year.

That's because ships coated with this biological material travel more slowly through the water, and so their engines burn more fuel. Sea Robotics "Hull Bug" crawls across the ship's hull cleaning bio-junk without using harsh copper- based chemicals that can damage the marine environment.

Sea Robotics President Don Darling says the device sticks to the hull using a special negative pressure device, and cleans with spinning rotor brushes.

Autonomous sensors look for bio-material without the need of an operator guiding it -- and Darling says it can clean an entire ship in a day while it's docked in port.

iRobot Warrior 710

This Bedford, Mass.-based maker of robotic vacuum cleaners, gutter routers and kids toys also supplies ground-based rovers to the military.

At configurations up to 500 pounds, the new Warrior 710 is significantly bigger and brawnier than previous models and can pick up a 220-pound object within six feet, according to Tim Trainer, vice president operations for iRobot's government and industrial robots division. The Warrior 710 climbs stairs and slopes up to a 45-degree angle, rolls over rocks and can carry 150 pounds.

It's designed for IED disposal and clearing buildings. This robot also has a delicate extendable hand that can move around corners, open a car door and remove a bomb on its own.

Samarai Flyer

Engineers at Lockheed Martin's research lab took inspiration from maple seeds that whirl through the air as they drop.

The Samarai Flyer weighs less than half a pound and is 16 inches long -- ideal for stuffing in a backpack and launching by hand.

It can take off from the ground with its mini-spy camera or possibly an armament package. It's mechanically simple with only two moving parts, and was built using 3-D printing technology for its maiden public flight in August. Check out video here.

Bill Borgia, leader of Lockheed Martin's intelligent robotics laboratory, says the camera spins at the same rate as the body, but special stop-motion video software cancels out the rotation and allows the operator to get a steady stream of images.

"You could take this out of your backpack, throw it like a boomerang and see around a corner of a building or over outside a window and see if there are any bad guys inside," Borgia said.

The biggest engineering challenge is to boost the Samarai Flyer's endurance, according to Borgia. Hopefully next year it will hover for more than 30 minutes, he said.