Soldiers are developing relationships with their battlefield robots

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Robots are playing an ever-increasing role on the battlefield. As a consequence, soldiers are becoming attached to their robots, assigning names, gender — and even holding funerals when they're destroyed. But could these emotional bonds affect outcomes in the war zone?

This is the concern of Julie Carpenter, a Ph.D in education at the University of Washington. She recently interviewed 23 explosive ordnance disposal personnel who frequently use robots on the job.


Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Jeremy L. Wood.

Through her interviews, she learned that soldiers often anthropomorphize their robots and feel empathy towards them. Many soldiers see their robots as extensions of themselves and are often frustrated with technical limitations or mechanical issues which they project onto themselves. Some operators can even tell who's controlling a specific robot by watching the way it moves.

Which leads to a troubling question: What if they "care'"too much about the robot to send it into a dangerous situation?


From the University of Washington release:

“They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet,” Carpenter said.

Many of the soldiers she talked to named their robots, usually after a celebrity or current wife or girlfriend (never an ex). Some even painted the robot’s name on the side. Even so, the soldiers told Carpenter the chance of the robot being destroyed did not affect their decision-making over whether to send their robot into harm’s way.

Soldiers told Carpenter their first reaction to a robot being blown up was anger at losing an expensive piece of equipment, but some also described a feeling of loss.

“They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add ‘poor little guy,’ or they’d say they had a funeral for it,” Carpenter said. “These robots are critical tools they maintain, rely on, and use daily. They are also tools that happen to move around and act as a stand-in for a team member, keeping Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel at a safer distance from harm.”


It's a problem that's set to get worse. Empathy can only increase as battlefield robots become more animal- and human-like.

Last year, for example, the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Labs (HINTS) at the University of Washington conducted a fascinating study in which a robot named Robovie was unfairly put into a closet despite his verbal protestations. Watch this video to see how a 15-year-old responded to this moral violation:

Image: Iron Giant.