Rise of the Robots in the DoD

Physical and virtual robots will continue to redefine the realm of the possible and will force employers to reimagine what roles and functions will be left to humans alone. Martin Ford’s new book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future provides stark evidence that the robotics industry has the potential to replace the majority of human workers. Machines will soon be able to tend to their own needs, and their place in both blue collar and white collar sectors will push many to find new ways in which they can contribute.

As evidence that Ford is not a sole voice in the wilderness – this past weekend while traveling – I found three major publications focused on the topic of robotics.

Robots

After the disaster at Fukushima – many began to invest heavily in developing robotic technologies that could produce a machine capable of operating in environments most dangerous to humans. Military combat missions are ripe with examples of how the use of robots could save lives. There are also many more mundane support tasks that robots could accomplish. As the commercial sector continues to drive toward viable robotic technologies the DoD must keep pace in preparing for the inevitable rise of the robots.

As Military Communicators what can we take away from Ford’s message?

First, the time has come to consider seriously how much of our own physical work-force can and should be replaced by robotic means and what positions should be retained by humans. The DoD should consider what abilities robots currently possess and evaluate the trajectory of their future potential to determine what jobs they would be qualified to replace. Robots have now improved to a point where they can be “trained” to complete tasks by simply demonstrating the task – thereby removing the previous requirement of large amounts of laborious coding efforts. They have also benefitted from the significant advancements in sensors and sensor fusion. They can better discriminate objects within their environment and interact with them in a more adaptive, agile manner. Their mechanical dexterity is also improving. Robots have been developed to pick delicate plants and vegetables. They have also demonstrated they can complete extremely delicate tasks such as suturing the skin back onto the skin of a grape. Given this increased dexterity, sensor fusion, and trainability in robots – many military occupations could soon be replaced by these tireless workers.

The DoD should also consider what positions and actions virtual robots can and should replace. Currently, robotic software can produce news stories based on published data such as the results of sporting events and financial reports. Should future robotic software generate intelligence briefs and SITREPs based on unit reports and publicly available data? As automated systems, such as Siri continue to advance toward being capable of passing the Turing Test, demonstrating that machines can fool mankind into believing they are interacting with another human, will they become trusted advisors and counselors? Should they? Will IBM’s Watson’s medical advice win out over human doctors? Given the DoD’s culture of seeking information superiority to improve decision making and buy-down risk, will a time come when leaders hesitate to act until a super-computer calculates the odds of victory?

As the DoD begins to examine these challenging questions, another factor to consider is whether the large-scale adoption of robots in our ranks will require even greater support from civilians and contractors, or whether robots may replace the large body of non-military personnel that manage many of the day-to-day operations for the DoD. As noted in Rachel Maddow’s Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, much of the U.S. military has been outsourced over the past forty years. Can robots correct for this effect or will it exacerbate the underlying reasons for why the military can no longer retain and develop the skills necessary within its ranks to sustain and maintain its combat forces?

Recommendations:

  • The time has come for a blue-ribbon Joint panel to come together to examine the use of robots in the military – not in the next 10 years – but within the next 2-3 years.
  • Combat leaders should decide what current combat missions they could consider giving to robots and what second and third order effects may arise from the use of robots to accomplish these missions.
  • Support leaders should consider what tasks they can outsource to physical and virtual robots and what long-term savings/costs will arise as a result.
  • The sub-communities that will be tasked to help support and maintain these systems should consider what benefits and costs will arise once robots are introduced into the ranks of the military.

Robots are on their way – so now is the time to start posturing our military to leverage their capabilities and identify their weaknesses.

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.


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