Real Soldiers Love Their Robot Brethren

Concept art shows a human resistance fighter facing off against a Hydrobot from the movie "Terminator Salvation." (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Human warriors have long spoken of the bonds forged in combat and of becoming a "band of brothers." The fact that some of those fellow soldiers are made of metal has not discouraged human feelings toward them.

Thousands of robots now fight with humans on modern battlefields that resemble scenes from science fiction movies such as "Terminator Salvation." But the real world poses a more complex situation than humans versus robots, and has added new twists to the psychology of war.

"One of the psychologically interesting things is that these systems aren't designed to promote intimacy, and yet we're seeing these bonds being built with them," said Peter Singer, a leading defense analyst at the Brookings Institution and author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century" (Penguin Press HC, 2009).

Singer highlights many accounts of human soldiers feeling strong affection for their robots — especially on the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams where Packbots and Talon robots undertake the risk of disabling improvised explosives planted by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One EOD soldier brought in a robot for repairs with tears in his eyes and asked the repair shop if it could put "Scooby-Doo" back together. Despite being assured that he would get a new robot, the soldier remained inconsolable. He only wanted Scooby-Doo.

Robot in arms

The United States military sees robots as tireless warriors capable of striking fear into enemies, and is not shy about finding inspiration from "Terminator."

"One scientist said he was trying to build the Hunter-Killer drone from 'Terminator,'" Singer told LiveScience.

Terror aside, Singer and other experts point out how battlefield robots have also proved capable of inspiring love from their human comrades, such as the EOD soldier.

"It sounds silly, but you have to remember that he's been through the most psychologically searing experience: battle," Singer said. "That machine has saved him time and time again."

Sometimes such bonds led soldiers to risk their lives for their robots, in a strange inverse of the idea that robots would spare human lives. Singer recounted another EOD soldier who ran 164 feet under machine gun fire to retrieve a robot that had been knocked out of action. And several teams have given their robots promotions, Purple Heart awards for being wounded in combat, and even a military funeral.

This attachment to robots stems in part from the human brain's mirror-neuron system, which fires up whenever watching the movement of someone or something, Singer noted. The system helps form the foundation for empathy and understanding the mindset of another being, but can also lead people to project personalities and emotions onto objects.

Eyes in the sky

The growing numbers of battlefield robots have also changed the human relationship to war itself, especially as the United States has already fielded more than 12,000 ground robots and more than 7,000 flying drones in regions such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Armed drones in particular have proved effective in loitering over target areas for hours until targets come in sight, and then firing their missiles at suspected insurgents — all while being controlled by human operators sitting thousands of miles away in Nevada.

The drone operator's war often looks surreal and disconnected from reality, given that they coordinate strikes via online chat and view their targets as small infrared figures moving around. Many media stories have referenced the example of a 19-year-old drone operator, who honed his skills from playing Xbox to become a top operator and eventually an instructor.

That has led some members of the U.S. military to look down on drone operators for not sharing the risks of ground forces or even pilots, as Singer discovered. One Special Operations officer remained enraged years later by a "bogus weather call" that prevented a drone from supporting his unit in Afghanistan. His contempt for the Predator operators was such that he expressed more respect for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the insurgent mastermind who was behind hundreds of bombings and killings.

Still, Singer said that the operators "know lives are at stake," and take pride in the role that they play in helping demoralize the enemy. And the U.S. military has clearly invested much of its future in the capabilities of robots.

When Singer asked one U.S. Air Force officer about how he envisioned the psychological impact of the drones on the enemy, the officer compared the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants to the human resistance fighters in the "Terminator" movies —  hiding in their bunkers and caves from the technological onslaught.

How to fight a robot

The ever-watchful eyes in the sky have clearly unnerved human fighters to some extent. The New York Times reported in March that some Pakistani locals had given up drinking Lipton tea for fear of the teabags acting as homing beacons for drones. And the Los Angeles Times noted that a six-month campaign of Predator strikes has sown distrust within Al Qaeda, so that the militants have begun violently purging their own ranks.

However, Singer and others point out that the use of robots may also make the United States look weak, even cowardly to cultures in the Middle East and elsewhere. People of those cultures see a powerful nation that wages distant war with incredible technologies but refuses to risk its own troops, and they grow defiant.

"One side thinks that its very duty is to do everything to bring its soldiers home to its families," Singer noted. "For the other side, the very act of dying is almost the main goal."

Singer spoke with two insurgents for his book, and they acknowledged the technological prowess of U.S. robots and drones. But they also said they were not at all intimidated — one with an engineering background expressed eagerness to get his hands on his own robot.

Previous attempts to rely solely on technological shock and awe through "Gunboat Diplomacy" and airpower have not proven incredibly successful in the long run, said Douglas Peifer, a researcher at the Air War College of Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

"No doubt robots and unmanned combat systems will discourage our opponents and minimize our losses," Peifer said in an article for Small Wars Journal. "But betting that the latest iteration of revolutionary technology will magically compel a resolute enemy to come to terms is unwise."

On the modern battlefield, Iraqi insurgents have adapted by targeting EOD robots and capturing robots for their own use. U.S. soldiers have even encountered crude but innovative insurgent bots, Singer explained in his book — such as a remote-controlled skateboard rigged with explosives that scooted along as though pushed by the wind.

Guess who has the terminators

"We don't have to be in the year 2018 with Skynet and the terminators all around us, for those huge policy and military dilemmas to take form," Singer said. "They're already here."

As the U.S. military and others rapidly deploy a growing swarm of robots on sea, land and air, some experts cited in "Wired for War" could not help but make another "Terminator" comparison. They warned that the United States runs the risk of looking like the evil empire from Star Wars, if not the heartless Skynet and its army of relentless terminator robots.

Still, robot researchers and the military continue to embrace ideas born from "Terminator" and science fiction. Singer attended one presentation on the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) — a long-range robot that refuels itself on "grass, broken wood, furniture, dead bodies," according to a list reeled off by one scientist.

"I really hope Skynet doesn’t learn about that kind of system," Singer said.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.