US sailors and soldiers watch the iRobot PackBot 510 pick up a cup, via Wikimedia
The US military is still a far cry from Star Wars' Rebel Alliance, but robots are becoming increasingly crucial on the battlefield, and some soldiers are forging wartime bonds with their mechanical brethren that are more intense than how you'd think a human would feel about a machine.
Soldiers have admitted feeling anger and loss or even holding funerals when the robots they fight alongside are destroyed in combat, or awarding Purple Hearts for machines wounded on the battlefield. And the inadvertant emotional bond is especially common in Explosive Ordnance Disposal units—soldiers that rely on bomb-defusing and reconnaissance robots like the PackBot and TALON every day in the field, to sniff out explosives by traveling into areas too risky for a human.
It begs the question, if military members start to feel empathy for the same tools built to keep humans out or harm's way, does it defeat the whole purpose of these machines? Does it put the soldiers, or their mission, at risk?
Robot-human-interaction researcher Julie Carpenter explored the issue in a recent study out of the University of Washington. She interviewed 23 EOD personnel about their feelings toward their robot warriors. While the troopers were adamant they viewed the machines as nothing more than helpful tools, Carpenter found many signs that the men and women actually interacted with the machines more like how you would a pet or even a friend.
"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,' she said. Many soldiers also named their robots, sometimes after their wives or girlfriends.
Carpenter isn't the first to explore the bonds between EOD soldiers and bomb-sniffing robots. Peter Singer, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institute whose book looks at how robot revolution's changing the nature of human conflict, recounted to LiveScience how some troopers were devastated when their robots were wounded, and, in a total reversal of the intended purpose of the tools, even risked their own lives to save the machines.
"One EOD soldier brought in a robot for repairs with tears in his eyes and asked the repair shop if it could put 'Scooby-Doo' back together. Despite being assured that he would get a new robot, the soldier remained inconsolable. He only wanted Scooby-Doo," LiveScience reported.
It's no surprise that humans experience empathy for inanimate objects. (Think: your favorite childhood stuffed animal). And in April a pair of studies found that the same part of our brain that's activated when a human is hurt or sad is activated when robots are too. But with a future of robot-human teamwork on the horizon, it's worth asking, how much compassion is too much?
What's more, new generations of military robots are being developed that will evolve the machines to appear more humanlike, which could spark even more empathy. Interestingly, the machines used in the field today aren't very lifelike at all. In combat, it's the shared experience of war and fighting to stay in one piece that may heighten the unintended empathy people feel for robots.
Talking about the soldier whose Scooby-Doo machine was ruined, Singer put it this way: "It sounds silly, but you have to remember that he's been through the most psychologically searing experience: battle. That machine has saved him time and time again."