Robot Empathy Could Affect Battlefield Mentality

Some soldiers paint names on the robots used in their units. (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)

As war relies more and more on automated machines like drones and bomb-diffusing robots, soldiers may start thinking of these tools as comrades instead of just machines, according to one researcher.

Julie Carpenter, a researcher and author based in Seattle, interviewed multiple soldiers based in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit about their work operating robots that diffuse or locate bombs.

Carpenter found that the soldiers who operated the machines often talked about the robots in human terms and occasionally even gave them names.

"In one sentence, they can say it's a tool and, in the next, they say it's human-like and animal-like and an extension of themselves," said Carpenter.

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Although the soldiers said their attachment to the machines never impacted their performance, Carpenter believes the army will need to investigate how soldiers relate to the robots - especially in intense situations such as diffusing bombs.

If soldiers become too attached to robots in the future, it could potentially affect how they handle high-risk situations on the battlefield. In theory, they could become skittish about using a favored robot to diffuse a bomb or they could be overly confident about using a robot as a stand-in.

During a series of interviews with the robot operators, Carpenter said, many soldiers expressed wishes that the machines could be made to be more human-like. One operator even wished he could have a full avatar of himself to diffuse bombs.

"It makes sense to be an avatar to be able to get in a house and maneuver around furniture," said Carpenter. "But I also believe … it opens up a whole other area of study to look at that impact [psychologically]."

When bombs did go off and mangle the robots, Carpenter said, many respondents reported feeling a sense of loss, although that sense of loss was usually tempered with humor.

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Carpenter found some military commenters on the Internet talking about giving a robot a funeral after it got wrecked in an explosion. One solider talked about one friend who lost his machine in an IED blast in Iraq.

"[They took] it back to base, and the next day there was a sign out in front that said, you know, the guy's name and underneath of it was like, 'Why did you kill me? Why?'" the solider told Carpenter, before laughing.

Carpenter is working on turning her thesis into a book about how robots could be used in the military in the future.

"I think that it's important to investigate the human factor as we continue to develop these [machines]," said Carpenter.