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Are Pentagon Nerds Developing Packs of Man-Hunting Killer Robots?

A dystopian sci-fi fantasy may soon be coming to fruition on a battlefield near you.

The Pentagon's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program recently sent out a call for contractors to design a pack of robots whose main purpose would be to track down what the SBIR ominously referred to as "noncooperative human subject[s]."

How does the robot pack decide which human is cooperative and which is not? Welcome to the wonderful, dystopian world of defense pork. 

The call immediately raised red flags, as well as philosophical and moral chills, from one end of humankind to the other. Not surprisingly, it was quickly removed from the public Web site before its cyborg spark evolved into a full-fledged paranoia over machine armies and murderous artificial intelligence, the likes of which were previously known only in seminal science-fiction exercises as old-school as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Philip K. Dick's stories, "Minority Report" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and as new-school as the Star Wars, Terminator and Matrix franchises.  

According to the SBIR offer, the "Multi-Robot Pursuit System" would need "a software and sensor package to enable a team of robots to search for and detect human presence in an indoor environment." The robots would be led by a human commander using "semiautonomous map-based control." For good measure, the offer added that there "has also been significant research in the game-theory community involving pursuit/evasion scenarios." According to the offer, the robots should weight a little over 200 pounds apiece, and there should be three to five of them assigned to their human overlord. 

The superficial logic at work in this curious merge of machine and flesh dictates that this speculative pack of robots would greatly reduce the human danger inherent in hunting down armed or violent persons hiding indoors. After all, robots are used today to detect and detonate incendiary devices; in fact, those very robots were evolved, armed and deployed to Baghdad, where they are currently awaiting orders to fire. The Pentagon's future robot pack is just the next inevitable step in that machine evolution: An armed machine given game-theory programming in predation and differentiation. The reduction is slightly convincing: If a robot is smart enough to detect bombs, it's smart enough to hunt down enemies. Give it a gun and count the saved lives on reality TV. 

But slightly convincing is also akin to slightly terrifying, in this case, and not because of what it means for machines. Rather, it's terrifying because of what it says about their masters. 

I, Dehumanizer 

"It's not technology we have to worry about, it's the humans," argue Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, editors of the academic technology and culture journal CTheory, which also counts as contributers famed theorists Bruce Sterling, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and DJ Spooky. "Why blame technology? It generally does what it is coded to do. It's the human sentient understanding of how to take cruel advantage of human weakness that's the problem. If the image of lethally armed robots can give rise to futurist dystopian visions, it's probably because that future has already happened with a military command that specializes in dehumanization." 

It's not just the military: From entertainment spectacles like Heroes to the New York Police Department and all the way down to the torture porn of Rube Goldberg films like Saw and games like Manhunter, American culture is blitzkrieged by mechanized violence.  

One of our currently mediated weapons of choice is the Taser, which has been seen on several Heroes episodes in the hands of mortal secret agents looking to hunt and take down renegade and innocent superbeings. In late September, a mentally disturbed Brooklyn man named Iman Morales was Tasered by an NYPD officer, against departmental rules and protocol, and fell immobilized to his death. Michael Pigott, the lieutenant who ordered the illegal Tasering of Morales, was found a couple of weeks later with a bullet in his head and a suicide note at his side.

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