Iraq

Do Androids Dream They Hear Electric Men and Monkeys in the Jungle Scream?

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johnny5

The great Joel Garreau describes the bonds that form between soldiers and robots on the battlefield:

"Ours was called Sgt. Talon," says Sgt. Michael Maxson of the 737th Ordnance Company (EOD). "We always wanted him as our main robot. Every time he was working, nothing bad ever happened. He always got the job done. He took a couple of detonations in front of his face and didn't stop working. One time, he actually did break down in a mission, and we sent another robot in and it got blown to pieces. It's like he shut down because he knew something bad would happen." The troops promoted the robot to staff sergeant—a high honor, since that usually means a squad leader. They also awarded it three "purple hearts."

And:

It's common for a soldier to cut out a magazine picture of a woman, tape it to the antenna and name the bot something like "Cheryl," says Paul Varian, a former Army chief warrant officer who has served three tours in Iraq with the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office. "There's an awful lot of picture-taking," he says. One guy who married justbefore deployment wanted his wife to see the gal who was his constant companion. It was a PackBot.

The piece raises a lot of questions about the increasingly blurry lines that separate the human from the machine. As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

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  1. Wait, they’re using robots in war?

    Don’t they realize the danger of making robots that aren’t equipped with the Three Laws?

  2. If we can send one of these robots back in time to kill Osama’s mother before she gives birth to Osama, then I’d be impressed.

  3. The piece raises a lot of questions about the increasingly blurry lines that separate the human from the machine.

    In roughly the same way various Twilight Zone episodes do and prison sex sheds light on homosexuality.

  4. The headline is making my mind split into like four separate personalities, one of which is a Jew working in a metal shop in Japanese occupied San Francisco, one an early Christian, one a SF writer living in So Cal in the late 70s, and one a teenage Soviet temptress with psychic powers. It’s going to be a long day.

  5. When we start sending burkha clad terminators into the terrorist hide outs with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, then color me impressed.

  6. In roughly the same way various Twilight Zone episodes do and prison sex sheds light on homosexuality.

    Well, no. It directly addresses both the way we project human qualities onto machines and the way our tools become extensions of ourselves. I think those both fit the bill.

  7. How ’bout the nose art on WWII bombers? Isn’t that similar to what is being described in the article?

  8. People bond with shit. This is a fact. People bond with horses, dogs, ships, airplanes, howitzers, rifles, machine guns, hair dryers, etc. It’s not fucking science fiction. It’s reality. It’s happening every day.

  9. Fair enough. But I’d still say the unusual circumstances here make generalizations about such things questionable at best.

  10. This is my robot. There are may robots just like it….

  11. So when we send our robots to destroy their robots what happens when we win?

  12. D.A.R.,

    There’s a ton of scholarly material on the anthropomorphization of machines.

  13. “We always wanted him as our main robot. Every time he was working, nothing bad ever happened.”

    An example of how the human mind reverts to caveman mode when faced with constant, random, and uncontrollable threats to bodily safety.

  14. If I kill one will the authorities treat it as a homicide, just like they do with police dogs? That always bothers me. A lot. Not that I have anything against dogs. Except the little nervous, shivering ones. They freak me out.

  15. The opening section of the article reminded me of a great story by Terrel Miedaner called “The Soul of the Mark III Beast.”

    In it, a scientist proclaims that biological kinship has little to do with a “respect for life” but rather the fact that another animal resists death.

    The scientist goes on to demonstrate by having a woman play with a small robot only to direct her to later smash it with a hammer. She does so until the machine lets out a wail and a whimper that prevents her from going on.

    It brings to mind the bigger factor…that these machines are seen as aids in (or more accurately fellow participants in) resisting death. Consider ‘Wilson’ from the movie Castaway.

    Anthropomorphising is a common and possibly admirable and necessary trait in human beings.

    Despite D.A.s irritation, perceived shared experience with machinery, pets or good luck charms is a powerful factor in human existence. It’s what causes some of us to name cars, weapons, tools and other such things.

  16. An example of how the human mind reverts to caveman mode when faced with constant, random, and uncontrollable threats to bodily safety.

    Even amongst more or less identically constructed machines, there are some that will undoubtedly perform better than others.

    Complicated devices are subject to all sorts of impacts in creation and construction, human and otherwise. What causes one car to come off a line running awesome while another comes off a lemon?

    The same may be the case here. The soldiers notice that this one bot seems to outperform the others. It seems to do exactly what it was designed to do and – and this is most important – it has survived longer than the others.

    I don’t think I’d accuse them of irrational caveman responses out of hand. I think there’s a much more complicated calculus going on there that’s driven both by observation and reason as much as mysticism and irrationality.

  17. Fair enough.

  18. Grotius:

    Sounds like too much academic heavy lifting for me. Look, I understand tools become metaphorically and sometimes not so metaphorically, e.g., my eyeglasses, extensions of one’s persona. Yeah, I named a car I once owned, too. I also understand how, by extension, robots on the battlefield may become the objects of some of the same sort of bonding that K-9s have before. (Hey, I remember Rin Tin Tin!)

    But when we start taking comments from some soldier calling a PackBot “the gal who was his constant companion” as at least implied evidence of the “blurry lines that separate the human from the machine,” I say such evidence (assuming it wasn’t, as is more likely, a joke in the first place) doesn’t go very far to support such a claim and needs to be put into the context of young men separated from women in general and friends and family in particular and put in a dangerous and stressful situation where human emotions and behavior are more likely to be atypical than not.

  19. This is my robot, this is my gun…

  20. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

  21. Yeah, yeah… and “My rifle robot is human, even as I, because it is my life,” too.

  22. D.A.R.,

    When my computer malfunctioned the other day – or rather, the router – I treated it as if it were a willful act. That seems to be a common enough thing in human-machine relations.

  23. An example of how the human mind reverts to caveman mode when faced with constant, random, and uncontrollable threats to bodily safety.

    Most of the people I encounter operate at caveman mode even without any threats to their bodily safety.

    Exhibit A: everyone likes to have the same seat every day in the lunchroom, and gets visibly upset if someone takes “their” seat.

    Exhibit B: the primate level subordination behavior whenever the CEO enters the room – the submission grimacing, the “smaller” body postures, you name it.

  24. highnumber,

    Come on, get off your High Castle.

    It’s common for a soldier to cut out a magazine picture of a woman, tape it to the antenna and name the bot something like “Cheryl,” says Paul Varian, a former Army chief warrant officer who has served three tours in Iraq with the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office. “There’s an awful lot of picture-taking,” he says. One guy who married justbefore deployment wanted his wife to see the gal who was his constant companion. It was a PackBot.

    Fembots as camp followers. Can they be far off?

    As for the future of our military, we all know that it will be at least 50% robotic, with the difference made up in genetically enhanced monkeys. It’s self evident.

  25. Grotius

    When my computer malfunctions, I assume it is a personal act of malicious mischief arranged by Bill Gates himself to torment me. ;P

  26. ProGLib,

    I can’t get off my High Castle, because the Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

  27. do women name their vibrators?

  28. P.Libertate

    . . . and don’t forget our terrorist fighting cybernetically enhanced dolphins. Check out here and here.

  29. highnumber,

    My I Ching reading indicates that you are actually living in an implausible reality.

  30. Fembots as camp followers. Can they be far off?

    Yeah, but Austin Powers will work his mojo and cause them to melt down.

  31. Matthew,

    You’re right, of course. I meant the Army, USMC, and the Air Force. Not the Navy.

    Yes, the Air Force. Haven’t you heard of Flying Monkeys?

  32. Hang on, ProGLib, some crazy sexy broad is killing a Nazi assassin for me.

  33. L Ron Hoover’s First Church of Appliantology needs to open a branch on the battlefield.

    http://home.online.no/~corneliu/extreme02.html

    L. Ron Hoover:
    Well, you have nothing
    to fear, my son!
    You are a Latent
    Appliance Fetishist,
    It appears to me!

    Joe:
    That all seems very,
    very strange
    I never craved
    a toaster
    Or a color T.V.

  34. Cmdr. Libertate,

    “flying monkeys”

    . . . uhmm, not outside of that scary scene in the Wizard of Oz. You mean they’re real ?!

  35. Matthew,

    Remember, The Wizard of Oz was filmed in the 1930s, long before digital effects were available.

  36. We’ll know the future has arrived when we have robots that wave their corrugated arms around ineffectually and say, “Danger! Danger!” in a deep voice until some guy wearing a V-neck sweater over his turtle-neck yells, “Shut UP, you mechanical ninny!”

  37. Stevo Darkly

    Actually, we’ll know that we’ve created a computer that thinks like a human when one of them consults a horoscope before starting work in the morning. [I think that’s a Ray Bradbury observation, but it could have been Ted Sturgeon.]

  38. Um, guys, the future will never arrive.

    In other news, you’re older than you’ve ever been.

    And now you’re even older.

    And now you’re older still.

  39. We’ll know the future has arrived when we have robots that wave their corrugated arms around ineffectually and say, “Danger! Danger!” in a deep voice until some guy wearing a V-neck sweater over his turtle-neck yells, “Shut UP, you mechanical ninny!”

    But if the Iraqi insurgents raise a clone army to fight our droid army, then the Sufi Knights need to start looking over their shoulders, I guess.

  40. But if the Iraqi insurgents raise a clone army to fight our droid army…

    There’s nothing to fear. Our leader Darth Sidious has all sorts of connections in the Senate, and he’ll make sure that we’re protected.

  41. thoreau,
    But by my analogy, Sidious is the leader of both sides. Think about that one.

  42. But by my analogy, Sidious is the leader of both sides. Think about that one.

    I think about that all the time, Brian, and not just jokingly.

  43. Or at least the instigator of both sides.

  44. One guy who married just before deployment wanted his wife to see the gal who was his constant companion. It was a PackBot.

    That is so hot.

    Think he was angling for a threesome?

  45. There’s nothing to fear. Our leader Darth Sidious has all sorts of connections in the Senate, and he’ll make sure that we’re protected.

    Waaait… when did the Pope become involved with this?

  46. From what little I’ve read from him in his unimpressive Playboy articles, Sam Harris seems to think of the patriarch of monotheism, Abraham, as the world’s Palpatine. But I’m skeptical. Mystics keep talking about the unity of all things, and it makes sense to me. The one capital-G God, as opposed to the numerous small-g gods, is minimally a personification of this unity. Is that fair as far as it goes?

    Anyway, that’s my last brain fart.

  47. God has a hard on for Marines…and their robots.

  48. God has a hard on for Marines…and their robots.

    So, if we managed to win-or even save face-in Iraq, President Bush could steal this speech from Peter Griffin of Family Guy: “I want to thank God. I want to thank the Lord God because It is really not up to me, it is up to him and I want to thank the devil too because you know that is why God is there. He is minding the fence to make sure that guy never comes back. You know if it weren’t for the devil God had probably gone insane blowing his brains out from boredom. Everybody likes to feel useful. Make a da world go around. Back to you Tom.”

  49. mr. sorgatz, you have to keep in mind that sam harris is not a sharp tack so much as a persistent one, a la o’reilly.

  50. I’ve never had an urge to finger bang Mary Jane Robo Crotch through her pretty pink panties, myself.

  51. do women name their vibrators?

    I knew one who did.

    She named it “BOB”.

    Short for Battery Operated Boyfriend.

  52. How ’bout the nose art on WWII bombers? Isn’t that similar to what is being described in the article?

    I’m reminded of an old cartoon, possibly WW2 vintage. It depicted a GI in front of his wrecked jeep, pointing his pistol at the front of the engine while he looked away with a grief-stricken expression, as if he were putting down a horse.

    People can bond with and anthropomorphisize things that are obviously implements (as far back as we have writing, we find people naming their swords); make the things in any way independent, like a vehicle or robot, and that becomes an even harder impulse to resist. We’ll see more of this as robots become more capable of doing things our instincts classify as “lifelike”.

    I find myself wondering whether that means, by the time when (and if) it’s possible to produce computers and robots that have human-scale intelligence, that people won’t have too much trouble treating such entities as “living”, thinking creatures or people.

  53. Et.5b

    That was a Bill Mauldin cartoon, right here. And it is of WWII vintage.

  54. Thanks, Matthew!

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