Slashdot is linking to a (slashdotted) article on the use of shotguns by robot soldiers. Really, this is hardly a surprise. It’s been predicted for some time now that once robots have some more experience in the field they would likely be armed in some way.
I recently had an interesting discussion with some graduate students from engineering and computer science, at a university with a lot of defense-funded research (not UB). They said something funny, that they didn’t think they would have to deal with ethical issues when they went into robots and AI research. Leaving aside that remark (which, to my mind, is a little scary in itself), they noted that there used to be a little bit more of a sugary coating to research funding, but that this coating was quickly disappearing.
One of the claims they made is that funding agencies, and especially DARPA, changed significantly the kind of funding they did after 9/11, focussing more clearly on military applications rather than basic research. It would be wrong, I think, to claim that DOD and DARPA have traditionally funded a lot of basic research, and there is a history of DARPA in particular, being forced to fund more practical work.
But is seems that any pretense of “dual use” has been dropped for the time being. I have seen funding at NSF that was looking for ways of identifying communities quickly become finding communities of terrorists. Autonomous robot navigation research now includes robots who are proficient at identifying and hitting targets with paintballs. In explaining the DARPA challenge last year, someone made an allusion to the fact that the terrain and distance were similar to what might be found between two particular Iraqi cities.
As a result, some of the researchers on this campus have quietly stepped away from some kinds of government funding. The majority, however, continue to engage in such projects. It’s hard not to do. Naturally, you can do a lot more work when you have the funding to pay for assistants, capital expenditures, people, and time. Moreover, the university expects you to seek such funding because the cut they siphon off helps to keep the university running. The military-university complex is obviously not a new thing, but it seems that the connection — at least on many campuses — is becoming far clearer.