While the idea of fighting machines taking the place of soldiers is as old as Pygmalion, the arrival of Terminator-style fighting systems is still far off in our future.
A briefing chart authored by the National Defense Industrial Association and the Pentagon’s Joint Advanced Concepts office entitled, “Future Vertical Lift Technology Opportunities” makes some far-reaching claims under the unmanned vehicles section. “As ROBOTICS applications increase, AUTONOMY will increase.” The report imagines “heterogeneous robots and sensors self tasking and teaming, ” adapting to their environment “through learning and experience, ” and responding “appropriately in reaction to autonomous target and/or scene recognition” with precious little human intervention.
The underlying problem of creating robots that adapt “through learning and experience” is that it drastically underestimates the complexity and power of the human brain. The human brain is capable of between 1015 and 1019 computations per second. That means that a human brain can complete at least 1, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 (a quadrillion) computations in a second, compared to the very fastest supercomputer, which can only perform 109 (1, 000, 000, 000) or one trillion computations per second (see graph below.) And, those supercomputers take up the space of a basketball court and need almost a million times as much power as the human brain. (see graph below)
Barring some unforeseen breakthrough that completely revolutionizes computing technology as we know it, what is the likelihood of replicating a human brain in a package suitable for installation on an unmanned combat vehicle? Could we give such a vehicle the software necessary to mimic the situational awareness, judgment, and training of a warfighter? Of course we can’t. Decades of research have yielded the Roomba, which can avoid stairs and self-adjust to switch between carpet and hardwood.
So while robotic warriors taking the place of frontline troops is a compelling idea that would save the lives of countless warfighters, we’ll still need flesh-and-blood soldiers to protect us when the next great threat to our republic emerges.