How the Terminator Could Play Peacekeeper
Riot police may look more and more like Robocop, but protesters have yet to be seriously confronted on U.S. soil by full-fledged robots that roll or fly across the potential battleground. That may change as some manufacturers begin outfitting robots with weapons designed for crowd control, and as experts ponder a future in which robots are used to help keep the peace on the streets.
That future won't necessarily find Terminators marching in lock step while chanting, "I am the law," but it could have a robot firing rubber bullets, tear gas or a water cannon while deployed in front of a line of riot police. Future robots with clever designs might even be used to influence the mood of demonstrators, calming them or making them fearful.
"We should not be stunned to see non-lethal weapons mounted on robots," said Peter Singer, a 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).
Turning robots into platforms for crowd-control weapons has proven relatively easy, even if questions remain about the value and cost.
The U.S. Marine Corps has experimented with a less-lethal version of its tank-like Gladiator unmanned ground vehicle in simulated crowd-control scenarios. Even the makers of Segway have become involved in the field, unveiling a water cannon-toting robot prototype that could turn its powerful spray upon either lines of protesters or a forest fire.
Alternatively, future robots could be designed to influence the psychology of an unruly crowd instilling fear or calm, and defusing situations in which protesters pick up stones to hurl at soldiers or riot-shield-carrying police.
"The reality is you don't want to use lethal force," said Ronald Arkin, a roboticist at Georgia Tech. "The question is whether robotics can afford ways to achieve resolution of these situations in ways other than human-on-human violence."
Aside from their less lethal payload, the robots don't appear vastly different from their battlefield counterparts. But Arkin has already begun imagining more futuristic robot brethren with advanced behaviors and appearances that could affect their interaction with humans.
Imagine a robot that could herd protesters in a friendly, playful manner with behavioral algorithms modeled on sheepdogs, Arkin said in a proposal submitted to DARPA, the Defense Department's research arm. If the crowd remained hostile, the robot might raise an array of dangerous-looking implements in a show of intimidation similar to that of a praying mantis.
Even if they didn't show up at a protest, and even if they weren't intentionally designed to affect human psychology, the crowd-control robots would have an impact similar to how drones and ground robots have begun changing human psychology on the battlefield.
"You're changing the psychology of how people being targeted might react, and you're changing the psychology of the people operating the robots," Singer told InnovationNewsDaily.
Soldiers become emotionally attached to their robot buddies, and people on the receiving end of robotic aggression may experience emotions ranging from fear to contempt.
Cause and effect
Those psychological changes can create a number of unexpected side effects. Robot operators, for instance, might be quicker to fire the tear gas or apply escalating measures against protesters because they would be doing it remotely rather than face to face an issue that has emerged on the battlefield as weapons operators become more distant from the scene of fighting.
Conversely, robots could help diffuse the traditional tension between the police and protest lines by presenting an unfamiliar third-party face to human demonstrators.
"Part of the things I'm trying to understand is if there are scientists out there who understand what enrages a mob and what defuses a mob," Arkin explained. "If we can reduce the fear on one side, that may help keep it from escalating."
If robots do become advanced enough for use among unruly crowds, humans must still consider whether it is ethical to allow the robots to physically manipulate people, including pushing them around, Arkin said. That debate has the potential to grow heated when it involves the issue of robots confronting U.S. citizens on the home front.
Finally, there's the question of whether robots would represent a cost-effective solution for controlling potentially hostile crowds.
The amount of armor or defense required for such robots might push the price tag beyond what the military or law enforcement want to pay.
"Robotic platforms can be fairly easily disabled," Arkin said. "Throw a Molotov cocktail, and that's the end of that platform."