There have been a million movies set in some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic future where killer robots are either a serious threat, or have taken over the world already. From humanoid “Terminator” robots to one of the latest “Black Mirror” episodes, “Metalhead,” these robotic organisms seem to have perfected the killing of human beings. They provide precision, lethality, and are close to invincible, cutting through flesh the way a machine at a factory builds something on the assembly line — cold, without error, and without conscience. From a storyteller’s perspective, it taps in to the innate fear we all have of feeling like the animal in the slaughterhouse, whose life is suddenly and gruesomely whisked away by an entity that could care less.
We see other movies and books that play off those fears and bring them closer to home. They point out the existence of unmanned drones, and the havoc they can wreak upon a population if the pilot (and his entire chain of command) so choose. The argument has been made that piloting a drone remotely lessens the “reality” of combat, thereby turning the killing of other human beings into an effortless video game — but any cursory search will bring you to a list of studies and articles that show how psychological trauma affects drone pilots just as much as shooters on the ground.
But the technology is there — couple our current drone programs with facial and gait recognition software, add a bit of artificial intelligence, and you might just have a versatile, unstoppable killing machine Right?
Not so much.
Drones are unmanned aircraft, but they are still piloted — the pilot is just sitting somewhere else. The military is nowhere near letting these things go off on their own to conduct lethal missions, and their levels of autonomy are more like: “return home,” “follow me,” “take off by yourself” or “level out.” Even the more complex, “orbit X object on the ground” is nowhere near this fantastical, “find X target, conduct reconnaissance, shoot to kill when/if the opportunity presents itself, return home.” While the technology might be somewhat plausible, in this day and age it would never coincide with the practical necessities of running any kind of tactical operation. Too much relies on other moving pieces outside the drone, as this isn’t simply some self-guided car we’re talking about. Still, if the “killer robot” of fictitious films and books exist in the near future, it would probably be in the form of aerial drones.
But what about on the ground? That’s what most people think of when they think of killer machine robots.
First of all, the terrain on the ground is infinitely more variable and difficult than the air. The human body still has trouble with the ground, and we have had thousands of years to develop technology to aid us there, not to mention most people still stumble around like a fifty dollar Walmart robot on a staircase. Watching someone who is new to night vision goggles, you would think they had never walked in the woods before, tripping and falling every which way. You would have to have some sort of catch-all, ultra-maneuverable robot like the one in the “Metalhead” episode of “Black Mirror,” that is capable of both speed, adaptability and resilience on our unforgiving and incredibly variable terrain.
That’s where you may have seen the prototypes for machines with incredible functionality, and it is easy for the mind to imagine a couple guns strapped onto one of these Boston Dynamics or DARPA robots and have it annihilate the entire human race. Still, while something might work in a lab, or even on the street in a city, it is a long, long way off from implementation on the battlefield.
When developing any modern weapon for a fight, there are almost always the same problems: how expensive they are, how easily they usually break, how difficult it is to fix in the field, and how there are too many moving parts for a non-specialist to realistically operate and troubleshoot on the ground. It is for these reasons that the U.S. military still uses the M4, and much of the world still relies on the AK-47, or some variant of either.
If you’re in a firefight and your futuristic drone-tank hybrid malfunctions, you’re in a world of trouble. You will likely have to destroy it entirely, which would cost millions upon millions of dollars (and may not be sustainable for manufacture), so the technology doesn’t reach enemy hands. New pieces of weaponry often have a myriad of complex, moving parts that cannot be realistically fixed in the field, so they just have to be destroyed or lugged back where a specialist can work on it. Realistically, shooters aren’t going to be soldering on new parts under fire, even if they knew how. And if they did, any one of those million little pieces of the machine is constantly susceptible to malfunction or damage — or even just a bit of sand. Pieces of developmental tech tend to have malfunction after malfunction, simply because, statistically speaking, with that many parts something is bound to go wrong within ten minutes of combat.
There is a reason why we have all of these futuristic suits and cool gadgets that circulate on YouTube and Facebook, but rarely do they actually wind up being fielded, even by they guys with the biggest budgets (perhaps with the exception of night vision and a couple of other supplementary tools).
This does not discount the usefulness of autonomous robotics in warfare, nor do I mean to presume that development won’t lead to some more seriously lethal machines.
Still: at the end of the day, the most lethal forces in the world are still just a bunch of guys with guns and an ungodly amount of training. They are supplemented with all sorts of assets, both human and robot, but as aids to their mission, not as any kind of replacement. The simple fact of the matter is that the human being is still by far the most versatile, complex and reliable “machine” out there. And if we’re talking oppressive, dystopian governments, then they would not mind using human beings as if they were dispensable robots anyway.
For the near and maybe distant future, it is likely that these robotics will continue to evolve to support in human efforts, rather than replace them entirely.
Featured image courtesy of Columbia/TriStar, from “Short Circuit”
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