History Channel’s series That’s Impossible explores the future and current state-of-the-art of battlefield robots in an episode subtitled “Real Terminators”. Although the focus isn’t on humanoids, they are presented as the final goal of the robotic arms race. Creepy close-ups of Dr. Ishiguro’s Geminoid and Waseda University’s silly-looking KOBIAN are interspersed throughout the episode.
The show begins with ground-based robots, from Nazi Germany’s Goliath (considered the first military robot) to recent examples used in the Iraq war. Developed by Foster-Miller for DARPA, the TALON SWORDS robots got into trouble when one allegedly turned its business end towards friendly troops in Iraq in 2007. Nevertheless some 3,000 units have been deployed, armed with any combination of machine guns, rifles, and grenade launchers.
The Predator UAVs are probably the most infamous of the robotic weapons used in recent war zones. It was first pressed into service in 1995 during the Bosnian war, then used only to perform reconnaissance. By the year 2000 the U.S. airforce was ready to arm the UAVs with hellfire missiles, with recon done by a smaller UAV called Shadow. It’s somewhat telling that the show makes no mention of the sloppy civilian casualty rates that Predators are known for. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon asked Congress for almost $5 billion for drones in the 2012 budget alone.
Boston Dynamics’ BigDog and Stanford’s Stickybot are examples of walking and climbing robots, followed by a section on exoskeletons. First up is the HULC suit built by Berkeley Bionics, which is designed to help support heavy loads on the back and legs. More impressive is the full-body exoskeleton built by SARCOS, but it’s still tethered by a thick bundle of wires. This episode premiered in 2009, so it doesn’t have anything particularly exciting to add to any of these.
Japanese humanoids are used to illustrate the possibility of future robot soldiers. Sylvain Calinon’s work on a chef robot that can cook an omelette is shown, followed by the conversational robot ROBISUKE. The HOAP-3‘s rudimentary learning capabilities doesn’t stop the show’s writers from comparing it to human children.
Although there are a few morsels of useful information presented over the course of its 44 minutes there is way too much fluff in this episode. Pointless soundbites from Michael Ferris (the “writer” of Terminator 3 and 4) and video game director Ken Levine (Bioshock) waste the viewer’s time. Furthermore the consequences of robotized war are not seriously explored. Moral and ethical quandaries aside, studies have shown that UAV operators are just as susceptible to PTSD as front-line soldiers for example. Instead of discussing real problems, the show ends with the oft-explored sci-fi threat of self-replicating robot armies.
Disappointing as it is, had it been produced in a couple of years to coincide with DARPA’s recently announced robotics challenge, they may have hit a home run.