Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Are we ready for shockbots?

Last week, iRobot - maker of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner - announced that it was working with stungun maker Taser to mount the latter’s controversial 'neuromuscular incapacitation' weapons on iRobot’s military droid: the PackBot.

The Packbot is already used in Iraq and Afghanistan to defuse roadside bombs and recently these robots have been fitted with lethal weapons like machine guns and shotguns. But, until now, weaponised robots have been for military use only. The iRobot/Taser collaboration changes this as it is geared towards making robots capable of shocking people available to law enforcement as well as the military.

Taser says the technology will let officers use a robot to 'engage, incapacitate, and control dangerous suspects without exposing those personnel, the suspect, or bystanders to unnecessary risks.'

But I spoke to Neil Davison, head of non-lethal weapons research in the peace studies department at Bradford University in the UK, and he sees some potential risks.

'The victim would have to receive shocks for longer, or repeatedly, to give police time to reach the scene and restrain them, which carries greater risk to their health,' he said. 'All you are really doing is further removing the process of human interaction,"

Then there’s the possibility that such robots could someday be autonomous, decided for themselves whether a target represents a threat. It might seem far fetched, but it's something iRobot has in mind, and its a possibility that has some researchers worried.

"If someone is severely punished by an autonomous robot, who are you going to take to the tribunal? The robot won't talk," says Steve Wright of Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. "

I’m wondering what kind of smart anti-shockbot technologies the likes of G8 protestors might come up with? Any ideas?

No comments: