A player in what sense? How is the military's use of robots changing?
Let me tell you a story. In a battlefield exercise about three years ago at Fort Benning, Georgia, one where many new technologies including robots and new UAVs and wearable computers and all of those things were being tested in a war game, an Army captain leading one of the teams was asked which of these technologies he would want to take with him to combat today. He said he would take iRobot's small unmanned ground vehicle (SUGV) [used for surveillance, reconnaissance and/or bomb disposal] and AeroVironment's Raven UAV. The captain explained, "I want situational awareness on the battlefield, and I want it from God's view, and I want it from up close and personal. If I have foreknowledge of the battlefield, it ensures the survivability of my troops and the success of my mission."
The next phase of this, which is just beginning, is robot autonomy. This is probably less exciting than most people would believe. Whereas today you have a soldier using a joystick to manipulate a robot much like a video game, what's next are a few pieces of autonomy that enable the robot to take over some of its own navigation, like cruise control. I don't have to drive the robot every step of the way, I can tell it to maintain a certain vector while traveling. Another area of autonomy is to program robots to, when they lose their communication signal with the troops, automatically navigate back to the last position where it could send and receive a signal. Today, if a robot loses communication, you have to go out and get it, which is not a popular thing. If you wanted to be out there in the field, you wouldn't have sent a robot in the first place. Little by little, robots will be able to autonomously complete more and more complex assignments to the point where you can program them with actual missions.
What types of robotic missions are we talking about?
Today, the ratio of robots to operators is one to one. You're going to start to have one operator with multiple robots that can be operated in a swarm, carrying out coordinated tasks. For an example of how this might work go back to the 9/11 time frame when we had anthrax in the Capitol Building offices. We couldn't even get in there for days. Now you have robots that could go in there and do chemical and biological testing and even create maps that would give you an understanding of the dangers and where they are located within the building.
How are robots themselves changing to meet the demands of ground combat?
If you go back and look at the early days of airplanes and even hot-air balloons, they began as tactical reconnaissance technologies. Then, once you got frustrated at being able to see the action but not do anything about it, the technology was given new features such as the ability to fire weapons. Robots likewise started out this way. We're not there in terms of giving robots strike capabilities yet, but in time we will see armed robots.
Would armed robots pose a danger to both sides in a combat situation, especially if there is a malfunction?
In terms of lethality it's our position that you're always going to have a man in the loop, even if a lot of the press and all of Hollywood don't see it that way. Will we have autonomous lethal systems? I don't think so. I don't think it's ethically right, and I don't foresee a world that hands over life-and-death decisions to a machine, even if it's a very capable system.