Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Band of Brothers

Unspoken camaraderie in war is common among fellow soldiers, but, in today's modern battlefield, a new relationship is being forged. Soldiers in Iraq have been known to become so attached to their bomb disposal robots that they are willing to risk their lives to retrieve them. "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. Singer recounted one EOD, or Explosive Ordnance Disposal, 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. 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.

Singer's explanation? "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. 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.

Personally, I am very intrigued by the whole concept of robots in combat. Predator Drones, especially, have been effective in loitering over hot zones 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. In fact, there's this story about a 19 year old drone operator who honed his skills at flying predators by playing XBOX.

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