US Military's New Robot That Will Change War Forever
A unit of soldiers is pinned down in an urban firefight. They’ve called in backup, but their position is too deep in enemy territory. Walls explode as bullets slam into them; screams fill the air; blood spills onto the ground.
Suddenly, a lone soldier appears at the far end of a street. He is running with superhuman speed toward the injured unit. The mysterious soldier raises its arm and fires. Every bullet strikes an enemy with deadly accuracy.
The soldier leaps into the air, catching a grenade thrown by the enemy, and hurls it back from once it came. The building containing the enemy bursts into flames. The soldier lands only feet away from the battered men. They stare wide-eyed at their savior.
But this is no human; it's a robot. Before we get started, let’s make a few things very clear. This video is not about a robot apocalypse or an AI takeover, so you can breathe a sigh of relief.
However, we will discuss how robots have already started to replace soldiers on the battlefield and what the future of warfare may look like. It is almost inevitable that battles and entire wars will be fought using robots in the future. As of right now, human soldiers are more plentiful, cheaper, and better able to make informed decisions, which makes them better at waging war than robots. But we are extremely close to a paradigm shift that could lead to robotic soldiers. You might not know it, but robots have already replaced several types of soldiers and are being incorporated into units across the U.S. military. Think about drones, uncrewed ground vehicles, and guided missiles; all of these things are technically robots with sophisticated components and programming.
However, we are here to take things a step further. Most of the robots on the battlefield today require human input in some form, either as a controller, navigator, or to initiate a task. Organizations like Boston Dynamics, Ghost Robotics, and DARPA are creating robots that will completely replace soldiers and make their own decisions on the battlefield. To be fair, Boston Dynamics and most robotics companies are not trying to replace soldiers.
In fact, most companies have openly stated they will not pursue any form of weaponization of their robots. They are adamant that doing so by any entity, including the military, would be egregiously irresponsible. Yet, humans are notorious for making bad decisions, especially when it comes to war. So, first, let’s look at the robots that could replace soldiers in the future, why they are better than humans, and the consequences of such an action. There are lots of different robot manufacturers in the world, but Boston Dynamics is one of the most advanced. They have a suite of robots that can be used for a variety of tasks.
However, it is their staggering progress in AI systems, along with state-of-the-art components, that make their robots so impressive. We are going to look at three Boston Dynamics robots that could pave the way for the future of warfare and the replacement of soldiers. Take the LS3, for instance. This robot can carry large amounts of heavy equipment across extremely difficult terrain. It allows soldiers to have lighter loads while simultaneously giving them the capacity to bring extra gear to be prepared for anything. The LS3’s armor plating can withstand heavy weapons fire while it keeps moving to its objective.
The LS3 can operate in any type of environment, whether it be extremely hot, cold, wet, or icy. Its sophisticated programming allows it to make adjustments to maintain balance and execute commands quickly. This robot is clearly not a candidate to replace soldiers as it is bulky and relatively slow. However, as a support unit, the LS3 and robots like it will be invaluable in the future for resupplying troops on the front lines.
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These dog-like robots have been used by a number of contractors, including law enforcement and first responder agencies. They are small, maneuverable, and quick, which makes them perfect for reconnaissance and exploratory missions. They can also serve as senteries and security for important locations. Again, Spot will not replace soldiers due to its limitations but think about the tasks it can do to make a soldier’s life easier and safer. Spot can use different thermal imaging filters and get a 360-degree view of a landscape to provide valuable data.
It can even run into fire, both literal fire and that which occurs during combat and rescue missions. But the robot that is most likely to replace soldiers will be one similar to Atlas. The first thing you notice is that Atlas looks eerily human-like. LS3 and Spot are both quadrupeds or robots that walk on four legs. Atlas is a biped like you and me. Like the other robots, Atlas is designed to complete human tasks that are dangerous such as dealing with harmful radioactive waste, turning off pressure valves in tenuous citations, and rescuing people from collapsed or burning buildings.
However, what makes Atlas the leading candidate to replace soldiers is not just that it looks like one; it is the fact that programmers have created highly advanced artificial intelligence that allows Atlas to learn. Every time it fails, the robot gathers data on how to become better and succeed in future attempts. But it doesn’t just learn when it makes a mistake. The AI Atlas uses constantly analyzes information to make the robot more efficient and better at the tasks it’s given. You can imagine how this could eventually lead to an efficient, highly skilled, incredibly deadly robot soldier. Again let’s be clear, Boston Dynamics is not building robots to replace soldiers.
In fact, as we will discuss later, the company is actively working against such things and issuing warnings of the dangers that could arise if robots are weaponized. But there is one organization that will not heed these warnings because their entire purpose is to make better and more powerful weapons. This organization is the U.S. military. The Department of Defense is constantly looking for ways to make the United States military more efficient and deadly.
It will not happen overnight, but eventually, they will get robotic soldiers on the battlefield. There are several factors standing in the way right now, such as technological shortcomings, high costs, and limited production capabilities. However, that will all likely change in the future. So, let’s run through some scenarios where a robotic soldier like Atlas would make a human soldier obsolete. Although a human can sprint faster than bipedal robots at this time, humans inevitably get tired. Robots, on the other hand, can operate at 100% efficiency for as long as their batteries last.
As consumers want more and more electronics, EVs, and appliances, battery technology has become more efficient. Robotic soldiers of the future will likely be able to operate for hours on a charge, which is more than long enough to complete a mission. Especially when you take into consideration that a robot doesn’t need to find cover while being shot at. If it gets hit by a bullet, it will keep going, and if it's damaged, it will make adjustments to ensure it can complete its task. AI will allow a robotic soldier to make instantaneous adjustments to improve its chances of success. There is also the fact that high-tech sensors and cameras allow robotic soldiers to be incredibly efficient and hit targets with precision.
The computer controlling the robot can make millions of calculations a second and take into account numerous variables. If the robot gets knocked down by an explosion, it can immediately recover and return fire. When compared to a robot, the human body is frail. The robotic soldiers of the future will be built to withstand almost anything. Military missions are often a balance of risk versus reward. If human lives are being sacrificed, the objective better be worth it.
However, robotic soldiers will remove this thought process from the equation. The military won’t want to just throw robots away due to costs or technology falling into enemy hands, but the risk to human life will no longer be a concern. This means the military can take greater risks or carry out missions that seemed unfathomable in the past.
Take urban warfare, for instance. Sending troops into a city crawling with enemy soldiers is incredibly dangerous. The enemy could be hiding around every corner or held up in buildings waiting to trap troops in an ambush. Many things can go wrong in urban warfare because soldiers have relatively few lines of retreat, and it is difficult to safely send in reinforcements. Robotic soldiers will face all of the same threats that human soldiers do in urban warfare. However, the difference is that the robot can fight until the bitter end without the military being concerned about trying to evacuate wounded soldiers or leaving a man behind.
Robots can walk through areas heavily fortified by enemy forces and draw them out, providing valuable intel on the location of hostiles. Then the military can either use airstrikes or send in a larger platoon of robotic soldiers to deal with the enemy threat. Regardless of which method is chosen, human soldiers will not be jeopardized.
The main reason that robotic soldiers are the future of warfare is that they reduce casualties and allow the military to operate unimpeded by the risk to human life. One robot can complete a mission that might take a whole platoon of men. This does not minimize the skills and dedication that soldiers have. It is just a fact that heavily armored robots that make split-second decisions with no emotional attachment are incredibly efficient killing machines. Robots can withstand direct hits from bullets, shrapnel embedded in their chassis, and the loss of limbs and still keep on going.
Humans just can’t do these things. Robots can also spend long periods of time in areas that are inhospitable to humans, such as scorching deserts without any water or the desolate landscapes of the Arctic. But there is an added benefit that robots have even after a mission is completed. PTSD is very real.
Soldiers and first responders experience life-threatening conditions on a daily basis. And when your job is to kill or be killed, it is no surprise that soldiers who make it home live with constant fear and anxiety for the rest of their lives. The United States and many countries around the world are struggling to provide the necessary care, rehabilitation, or resources that soldiers need to reintegrate into society. This is why mental health issues are much more prevalent in veterans than in the general population. Some studies suggest one in every four soldiers will end up with some sort of mental health disorder as a direct result of serving in the military.
The reality is that robots will not suffer from PTSD. They will not question their mission. And they can be thrown into combat time and time again without fear of what it will do to their mental state.
It is important to remember that artificial intelligence is not the same as being self-aware or sentient. The AI used in robots like Atlas does not cause emotions; it is just strings of code that allow the robot to learn and adapt. Perhaps someday, there will be a program that becomes self-aware, but this notion is likely fueled by all of the robot apocalypse movies we’ve come to love and fear.
If you’re not yet convinced that robots will eventually replace human soldiers one day, all you need to do is look at how they’ve already been incorporated into battlefield situations. The U.S. military has used quadrupedal robots like Spot for a number of missions. The French army also used the four-legged robot to conduct a two-day reconnaissance operation in 2021. The robots are utilized for the ability to search areas that would be dangerous to send humans into, but also because their sensors allow them to sight and track targets with much more accuracy than humans can. Robots have also been used by law enforcement agencies along with the military to inspect suspicious packages, identify IEDs, and even deactivate bombs. All of these tasks used to be done by humans, and as you can imagine, there have been countless deaths before robots took over.
Robots tend to be more efficient than humans, and when an explosive does go off, they are more resilient as well. Sometimes the robot is lost in these scenarios, but that also means a human life was saved. The question lurking in the back of your mind at this point is probably: but what if you give a robot a gun? As far as we know, no robot has been equipped with a weapon and given full autonomy to decide what to do with the weapon. That being said, we can’t be 100% sure that somewhere hidden deep within a government facility, there aren’t a bunch of scientists and engineers running experiments on fully armed robots using AI to make decisions.
But let’s assume the military is being responsible at this point in time. What we do have is unmanned rifles that are fired remotely by humans. Ghost Robotics and SWORD International have created a weapon called the Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle or SPUR. They attached the weapon to one of their quadrupedal unmanned ground vehicles, reminiscent of Boston Dynamics’ Spot. The SPUR fires a 6.5 mm bullet up to 1200 meters with precision. The important thing to note here is that the SPUR can’t be fired by the robot.
Instead, it is operated and controlled by a human from a safe location. So, the weaponization of robots is definitely happening, but the robot itself has not been given the ability to decide who to target or when to fire. And this design is being tested around the world.
The Singapore-based Defence Science and Technology Agency has also built an unmanned rifle that it plans on mounting atop its own quadrupedal robot. So, it is not hard to imagine that between now and the time of fully automated robotic soldiers, battles might be waged between robotic dogs with rifles bolted to their backs. The 325th Security Forces Squadron at Tyndall US Air Force Base is currently using Ghost Robotics’ Q-UGVs for regular security operations. Although these watchdogs do not have unmanned rifle attachments, they are still highly effective at monitoring base security. Each robot has 14 sensors, advanced multi-directional cameras, thermal detection, and infrared video. They consistently perform routine checks around the base to spot any breach in defenses.
The best part is that the robots do all of this autonomously, so they can be set loose at any point and relay information back to the security command post if any anomalies are detected. This same functionality can be used on the battlefield, and it goes without saying that a robotic soldier would have all of the bells and whistles that the Q-UGVs have. Imagine a soldier that can see thermal signatures in the dark, detect the slightest motion, and continuously track targets wherever they go. This is all possible right now and could be a basic package that robotic soldiers come off the assembly line with.
Right now, most of the Ghost Robotics and Boston Dynamics robots are not being used for security or military purposes. Instead, they are utilized to work in places with high levels of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear contamination. These areas would be hazardous to humans even with full bodysuits since there is always a risk that something could go wrong.
The use of robots for these tasks greatly reduces the danger that something could go wrong. Here is where we stand with robots replacing soldiers and other military assets. Firstly, robots like Atlas are nowhere near ready to be deployed on the battlefield and make good decisions. Secondly, there are only a handful of robots like Atlas, and they are incredibly expensive to manufacture. Thirdly, there are no plans to equip AI-controlled robots with weapons and give them the ability to decide when and who to shoot. So, for now, the jobs of soldiers are safe; whether that is a good or bad thing can be debated.
However, with the pace at which robotics and technology are advancing, it might not be too long before we see human-controlled robots firing at enemy soldiers. Drones already do this, but imagine if an infantry squad was supported by several Q-UGVs or a couple of heavily armed LS3s that don’t just carry equipment but offered supporting fire as well. The future is now, and robots have already begun making their way onto the battlefield, but we are years, if not decades, away from entire battles being fought by robots only. This brings us to several concerns about robotic soldiers. We know it is hard to shake the thought of them becoming self-aware and turning on humanity, but let's operate under the assumption that computer programmers know what they’re doing and won’t allow the robots to become sentient. Even if the AI is super advanced and the robots work perfectly, there are still some problems with replacing human soldiers with robotic ones.
The most obvious problem is will the AI robots make the right decision in delicate situations. Letting autonomous robots loose on an enemy with the directive of eliminating all hostiles seems like a simple enough command. But just like in any war, there will likely be civilians around. Imagine what would happen if a squad of robotic soldiers surrounded a building containing 100 terrorists who were holding a child hostage. The robots could eliminate all 100 terrorists by blowing up the building or entering with guns blazing, but the child would likely die in the process. What would the robots do? If their sole objective is to eliminate all enemies with minimal risk to civilian life, the AI may decide it's acceptable to unload its weapons into the building to kill all of the terrorists, even if it means killing the child in the process.
If the robots are programmed to ensure that no civilians are hurt, the AI might decide it's not possible, and the terrorists would continue to cause chaos. There is no way to actually know what the AI would decide to do until it did it as the AI is designed to analyze each situation and come to the best conclusion based on the information given. There are countless scenarios where this line of thought can be applied. One of the best things about robotic soldiers is they have no emotions, so they don’t feel fear, stress, or pain. However, this is one of their greatest weaknesses as well since emotion oftentimes plays a huge role in the decision-making process. That being said, humans faced with these same situations also need to make tough choices.
It is very plausible a building with 100 terrorists would be blown up by human soldiers even if there was a child inside because their life could be seen as a necessary sacrifice. However, the humans who were involved in this decision would have to live with the knowledge that they killed an innocent child, while a robot would not be affected by these emotions after the fact. Another very real concern is that any computer, no matter how sophisticated it is, can be hacked. Some are definitely harder to crack than others, and the AI controlling a robotic soldier would likely have numerous firewalls to ensure that it couldn’t be repurposed by the enemy. But vulnerabilities occur even in the most sophisticated programming. Those who are against deploying robots onto the battlefield continuously cite this problem.
If a reconnaissance Q-UGV was somehow captured and repurposed by an enemy, it could have drastic consequences. Perhaps they would reprogram the robot to return to base and eliminate everyone in the vicinity. Or an even simpler yet just as deadly tactic could be to equip the robot with a bomb and have it detonate when the robot returned to base to recharge. More sophisticated robots, such as Atlas, could have their programming rewritten to turn against their own side. They could even become the ultimate sleeper agent.
The enemy might hide code deep within the robot’s hard drive so that when it returned to base, the enemy code would kick in, and the robot could target prominent generals, politicians, or even leaders of a country. It is hard not to imagine doomsday scenarios and all of the things that could go wrong with AI-controlled robots on the battlefield. To be fair, military equipment falls into enemy hands all of the time; just ask Russia. When armies need to retreat, vehicles and weapons will inevitably be left behind.
The problem is when you leave a gun behind, it can’t be reprogrammed to infiltrate the ranks of its creators to wreak havoc from within. Forgotten robots, on the other hand, can pose this very real threat. And for these and numerous other reasons, executives at Boston Dynamics and other robotics companies have spoken out against weaponizing their robots and using them as soldiers. They have also implemented ethical programming in their design structure. Ethical programming requires that code is written with the awareness that programmers are responsible for protecting human rights.
In this case, writing code for a robot to kill a human, even if it is an enemy soldier, would not follow the parameters of ethical programming. This is why Boston Dynamics has made it clear it will not create robotic soldiers or anything specifically for military use. However, ethical programming is not a law and is not followed by everyone. If the military purchases robots from Boston Dynamics or any other company, there is nothing to stop them from weaponizing whatever they acquire. And then there are contractors such as Ghost Robotics who have specifically designed automated rifles for their robots.
Granted, these weapons still need to be controlled by a human, but is there anything to stop the military from taking the next step and writing a program to allow robots to fire freely at an enemy target? Unfortunately, there really isn’t. In an open letter, Boston Dynamics condemned weaponizing robots in general, which was also signed by other companies such as Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics, and Unitree Robotics. So it is clear that some of the most prominent robotics companies in the world are vehemently against robots replacing soldiers in the future. In the letter, Boston Dynamics brings up an excellent point.
They say: “We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues.” The weaponization of robots isn’t just a risk on the battlefield; they could also be used to cause immense harm at home. There are already populations of people who are unfairly targeted by law enforcement because of the way they look, and there are algorithms that clearly have biases against certain ethnicities.
All you have to do is look at the IRS during tax season. The New York Times reported Black taxpayers are at least three times as likely to face IRS audits due to biases in their algorithms. Robots are an extension of those who build, program, and use them. This is why weaponizing robots is so dangerous and hopefully why robotic soldiers are never deployed. Now watch “Why 2023 Will Be The Worst Year EVER.” Or check out “Deadliest Weapons of World War 3.”