The slide clicks into place like a screen from an early 2000s video game, the audience peering over a contested valley through the perch of a tank commander.
Another click, and the unknown tanks and infantry are clear, as our tank-commanding avatar holds a tablet with the enemy positions illuminated in red. Finding these enemies are an array of systems, from satellites to drone swarms to uncrewed reconnaissance vehicles on the ground.
Another click, and the hostile forces on the screen are replaced by scorch marks, the tank commander’s tablet illuminated with the range of strikes called in from air and land forces.
At the Army Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Symposium & Exposition, put on by the Association of the United States Army, PowerPoint imitates video game imitating war. Panelists here in Detroit spoke to a packed hall about how, exactly, they were hoping robotics, autonomy, and AI could change the battlefields of the future.
While it exists in simulations and in games, perfect information on a battlefield remains an impossibility. Creating a “red force tracker;” that is, an intelligence collection process that provides real time information on where enemies are at all times, is a technological fantasy. But it is one that could get closer to reality with autonomous robots scouting and providing information. This would take a great degree of information synthesis and distillation at the point of collection to work.
So how to get there? Not bound to the technology of today, panelist Armin Krishnan, author of the book “Killer Robots: Legality and Ethicality of Autonomous Weapons” drafted something of a conceptual wishlist for the robots of future wars.
Looking to the 2030s and beyond, Krishnan pictured all-electric vehicles, thanks to the lower logistical burden and fewer moving parts of an electric vehicle. To maximize electricity as the sole resource of the machine, he suggested weapons that don’t jam (think electromagnetic rail guns or directed energy weapons). These weapons, drawing on battery power, could allow vehicles to travel a range orders of magnitude greater than what is available today.
Rather than remote-control or teleoperated machines, Krishnan imagined future machines as autonomous enough to require little human supervision, employ complex tactics, and to allow for a high degree of coordination with little need for communication.
“They would work as an extension of the soldier’s self or body,” said Krishnan. The best way to control "unmanned systems would be through brain computer interfaces, to take advantage of superior human cognitive abilities and combine [them] with the speed and precision of machines.”
That brain-machine interface may conjure images of electrode-helmeted soldiers with furrowing brows to directly steer a robot, and while that scenario is not implausible, there are other ways to get computers to interpret commands from humans as well as humans do.
“If we want to reduce cognitive load, we have to get the equivalent of Siri for robots,” said Robert W. Sadowski, chief roboticist for the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. “We have to get the same interaction from a human-computer interface that a tank commander has with its driver, where it can maneuver in that space.”
That means not just language processing skills, but even the ability to interpret gestures, and to do all of this while being commanded by a human, but not piloted by one.
“At the end of that process, I need to have hand and arm gestures understood as well,” said Sadowski. “And it has to maneuver by itself in restricted terrain, because I don’t want to have to take have the fire team out to do teleoperations.”
Think back to the example of the tablet-commanded robot scouts and called-in strikes earlier. This is a vision of military command where a human sits at the center of an autonomous body of sensors, perhaps gives them objectives but not specific targets, and then lets the machines process information to convert objects recorded with cameras into coordinates for where airplanes and artillery should place explosives. It’s a vision of war almost as seamless as a round of StarCraft or Command & Conquer, real time strategy moved from idle amusement to battlefield practice.
Almost as seamless.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.