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DARPA’s New Multi-Million Dollar “Terminator” Program

DARPA just put out a call for a robotics software/hardware research and development program called ARM, which seeks to build a robot that can autonomously and skillfully grasp a number of objects using two arms and hands – including objects like knives and pistols.  Disturbingly, the brief states that the new robot hand and control software should be able to (and I quote), “Hold an inert grenade with one hand, and pull the pin with the other hand” without the need for human control.  And they plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on it over the course of 4 years.

As the project progresses, the teams working on software and hardware must reach milestones.  The robot should be able to: pick up and write with a pen; use pliers; unzip a duffle bag; drill a hole using a power tool; insert a key and unlock a door; and assemble an object from a kit of parts.  Do you think this kind of sophistication would allow it to shoot a gun?  You may notice that we don’t talk much about military robots on this site – though we have a certain fondness for Boston Dynamics’ BigDog – but this development is fairly alarming.  In the next section, note that “ball” is a euphemism for “grenade”:

The software system must enable the GFE (Government Furnished Equipment; i.e. the robot) to perform the Challenge Tasks following a high-level script with no operator intervention. For example, the operator would issue a command such as “Throw Ball.” That command would in turn decompose into a sequence of lower-level tasks, such as “find ball,” “grasp ball,” “re-grasp ball, cock arm, and throw.”

Boston Dynamics was recently awarded $32 million to perfect BigDog.  Their bipedal humanoid PETMAN should be capable of performing the actions of a soldier in a hazmat suit – such as walking, running, and crawling.  They claim that PETMAN will be used to test the durability of chemical warfare suits under a variety of stress tests.  Combine that with an upper body with two arms and hands capable of grasping and utilizing weaponry, designed specifically for military purposes, and you’re a stone’s throw away from a Terminator-style robot.  Even if the robot isn’t bipedal (the document suggests the robot will drive on wheels) it will be humanoid possessing a head, two arms, and sensitive hands.

Clearly there is a lot of room for improvement in the area of autonomous grasping, and DARPA has funded some very important research.  If not for the “grenade clause” one could easily believe the new robot is intended mainly for explosives disposal.  Unfortunately even if that is the case, it seems inevitable that as robotics technology continues to advance, it will be increasingly used for military purposes.  In reality, when completed ARM will be just the tip of the iceberg.  Do we really want another technological arms race?  Do we even have a choice?  And am I crazy for thinking this is totally FUBAR? One wonders how foolish current military escapades will look in a few decades when solar panels have advanced to the point that they provide for most of our energy needs… oh, but wait, it’s about terrorism.

Hit the source link to download and read .PDF for yourself.

[source: Federal Business Opportunities]