Trouser-moisteningly terrifying news broke this week, as it emerged that sinister forces within the US military are looking to develop a remorseless robotic wolfpack capable of hunting down "a non-cooperative human subject" in "an indoor environment".
Yes, it's true - last month, crazed Pentagon brainiacs asked contractors to develop a "Multi-Robot Pursuit System", to consist of:
A software and sensor package to enable a team of robots to search for and detect human presence in an indoor environment...
Operator control units are available that allow semi-autonomous map-based control of a team of robots ... There has also been significant research in the game theory community involving pursuit/evasion scenarios. This topic seeks to merge these research areas and develop a software/hardware suite that would enable a multi-robot team, together with a human operator, to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject.
It will be necessary to determine an appropriate sensor suite that can reliably detect human presence and is suitable for implementation on small robotic platforms.
Typical robots for this type of activity are expected to weigh less than 100 Kg and the team would have three to five robots.
Not only will the skies of tomorrow be black with automated armadas of Reaper slay-planes, Fire Scout unmanned kill-choppers and possible crewless raygun cyber bombers; not only will thousands of years of human civilisation rapidly be reduced to smoking rubble; but even the option of cowering like a hunted beast in a cellar, sewer or tumbled monument has now been snatched away. Those hoping to survive for years after the machine uprising, subsisting on refuse and scuttling rat-like through the ruins until loneliness and horror finally bring merciful insanity and death, have been balked. Soulless squads of steel stormtrooper assassins will prowl the shattered cities of humanity like hunting velociraptor packs, sniffing out and snuffing the cowering remnant meatsacks, until a lifeless Pax Robotica rules the entire Earth unchallenged.
That's surely the view being taken by two of Britain's top technofear profs, asked to comment on the droid by renowned peacenik tech publication New Scientist.
Here's Steve Wright of Leeds Metropolitan University:
"What we have here are the beginnings of something designed to enable robots to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs ... they will become autonomous and become armed.
"We can also expect ... sensors which detect human breath and the radio waves associated with a human heart beat. These are technologies already developed."
Wright has also predicted the coming of "a modern techno-politics" deploying "machine operatives" and "self-deciding automated sentinels" armed with a terrifying sci-fi panoply of microwave rayguns, pulse lasers, tranq bombs, plasma-lightning mob blasters, "vortex energy rings" and sonic beam weapons. Honest: pdf, p12-13.
Needless to say, Wright's views are echoed by our old friend Noel Sharkey - the man who famously flagged up the threat of droid security troopers blasting little girls who try to share ice-creams with them, who has warned of the deadly robot terrorist threat, and who endorses bogus robot-buster weaponry companies.
"There will be a robot force under command of a single soldier with potentially dire consequences for innocents around the corner," says Sharkey, speaking of the new droid doorkicker plans.
Hmm. Except, you know, actually the consequences for innocents running into a well-equipped Western military are already much more deadly than this. At the moment, due to a huge shortage of common-or-garden men with guns, such forces all too frequently deal with uncooperative humans in indoor environments by blowing up the entire building or even neighbourhood.
Even where a squad of troops can be found to clear a house, this is extremely dangerous work for the team doing the job. As a result, they quite often shoot people they shouldn't, tending to value speed over correctness when making decisions.
Sure, robot house-clearers (if armed) could make mistakes and kill innocents. But humans already do that anyway. Easing the fear/kneejerk factor for the human soldier operator - the Multi-Robot Pursuit System software "should minimize the chance that the operator may encounter the subject" - might actually reduce the number of errors, not increase it.
And the fact that one soldier can clear a house could mean that more houses will cleared by soldiers, rather than by dropping thousand-pounders on them. The huge majority of innocents killed in all recent wars have been the victims of heavy ordnance and/or landmines, typically airdropped - not any kind of weapon suitable for soldiers or "pursuit system" ground robots.
My god - could it be - sometimes technology makes things better than they were before? No, no. Sorry. Heresy. Ahem.
Still, the opponents of the machine rebellion may not need to tool up with an electropulse rifle and barricade ourselves into the septic tank* just yet. Today's ground robots have absolutely zero chance of outmanoeuvring or outshooting human beings inside a building; in a gunfight, the fleshies will emerge victorious.
That's why this programme is not, as prof Sharkey says, part of the US army's serious robot legion plan - the Future Combat Systems initiative. Rather, it is being run by the Small Business Innovation Research effort, which is designed to make sure that SMEs get a snuffle at the mighty federal pork barrel now and then. This is a job-creation effort for humans, not a serious tech push.
D'oh! What am I saying? Normal service will now resume:
Holy crap! The robots are coming! They're in the bunker! Cutting through the door! Take that, you metal swine! Hah, they don't care for the taste of high-power microwave pulse retribution. Damn - electropulse gun empty - bacofoil cranial paralysis-ray shield out of juice! Tin fucker's got me by the leg! Just leave me and save yourselves! No, no - not the vortex energy ring! Aiee!
And so forth. ®
*The smell should mask our bad breath from the droid smellware, and the liquid excrement ought to stifle our heartbeat radio signature.