Robots: Is The Future Now? New advances in robotics may change the way wars are fought. Journalist Evan Ratliff talks about new advances in the field of unmanned assaults. And Kaomi Goetz talks to New Yorkers about the subway's newly computerized "robotrains."
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Robots: Is The Future Now?

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Robots: Is The Future Now?

Robots: Is The Future Now?

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This is Day to Day, I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen. And now for a story that sounds almost like the premise of a B movie - a military without manpower. The Army plans to spend $160 billion on modernization efforts including unmanned vehicles and combat robots. Evan Ratliff wrote about this for the New Yorker magazine and he joins me now from KQED in San Francisco. Hi, Evan.

Mr. EVAN RATLIFF (Journalist, The New Yorker): Hi.

COHEN: So, you traveled to a place called Piney Flats, Tennessee to see what could potentially be the future of the military, robots developed by a guy named Jerry Baber. What are these machines look like and what were these guns capable of doing?

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, the robots were small. They look like little bitty tanks almost. And then on top of them, they have a sort of gun mount that sticks up, and attached to that is a gun that Jerry Baber invented. It's a fully automatic shotgun.

COHEN: What would be the advantage of using these kinds of robots in combat?

Mr. RATLIFF: You could basically put them in harms way and not have anyone get hurt. And the military uses a lot of unmanned ground vehicles to disable, improvise explosive devices in Iraq and in Afghanistan. So, they're basically saying, what we should do in the next step is, we should attach weapons to these and then we could send them into a building, then if one of them gets blown up, well, at least we don't lose a soldier or a Marine.

COHEN: But it sounds like there could definitely be some potential risk involved here and you actually write about an incident that happened to the military show in New Mexico. What happened?

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, the military does have a couple of armed ground robots. They have machine guns attached to these same robots that disable IEDs. And when they first began testing these, there was a military show. And the robot had been sitting out in the sun all day. One of the wires kind of fried. And when they started it up, the robots sort of started spinning around. And it caused all of the people sitting in the grandstand, they all sort of ducked or turned around and ran because they thought this robot is completely out of control and it's got a machine gun attached to it. Now, it turns out that the robot wasn't actually in great danger of firing. But what happened was, a lot of people in the military and people I talked to, they were a little bit spooked by that.

COHEN: Now, we mentioned that Jerry Baber's guns and robots aren't being used by the military, although soldiers have tried them out and liked them. Why wouldn't the army or why hasn't the army chosen his just yet?

Mr. RATLIFF: One reason is that it's a sort of complicated process to get the military to come buy something, especially if you're a guy out in a small town in Tennessee. But the other reason is just the military actually is not sure what to do with these types of vehicles. It's not that difficult to sort of start setting up procedures by which the robot might automatically target things in its field of vision. These types of technologies are eating into that idea that only people will be able to pull the trigger. And eventually, someone's going to have to grapple with this sort of moral implications of that.

COHEN: What do you see is the future of all of this?

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, I think that this is all coming down the line. I mean, certainly if you look at the Predator drone, it's already happening. I mean, there are already essentially robotic vehicles that are used to kill people, and the people who are driving them and pulling the trigger are just looking over a screen. So, that happening on the ground seems essentially inevitable. And then what happens beyond that is really going to be up to a discussion that occurs - hopefully a discussion that occurs about, you know, how much autonomy do you want to give a vehicle that has a gun on it? What kind of responsibility do you want to hand off to hardware and software to kill people?

COHEN: Evan Ratliff's article on weaponized robots appears in the New Yorker magazine. Thanks, Evan.

Mr. RATLIFF: Thank you.

BRAND: The robot future is now - in New York - underground. Oh, that sounds a lot scarier than it really is. New York subway system is rolling out a new thing. They're called robotrains and they're trains driven by a computer. A human conductor on board can take over when needed, that is if that conductor's name isn't Dave. Reporter Kaomi Goetz went to see what people think about the latest technology.

KAOMI GOETZ: It's 12:30 AM on a Saturday night. I had heard about this new so-called robotrains or computer driven subway cars on the L Line, so I came to check them out.

(Soundbite of public announcement)

GOETZ: The L stretches from lower Manhattan to Canarsie Brooklyn. It's the first of New York's subway lines to use a computerized system to break and accelerate the train. The trains were introduced to the public two weeks ago and have been running during the pre-dawn hours. But not many of this morning's passengers are even aware of the change. I got on at the L train 6th Avenue stop. Melissa Soltice(ph) and her husband are taking the train home to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She thinks the robotrains are a bad idea.

Ms. MELISSA SOLTICE (Passenger): I think that there needs to be human intervention when things go wrong.

GOETZ: What's been some of the problems?

Ms. SOLTICE: There's a period when we're under the East River when we go kind of fast and then all of a sudden an emergency break just becomes triggered automatically. And it doesn't ever seem to be for any justification. And so, it's that kind of thing that seems to need human attention.

GOETZ: The New York City Transit Authority says the trains have two humans aboard at all times, a motorman and a conductor. Spokesman Charles Seaton claims the motorman can take control at anytime should anything go wrong. He says the trains are as safe as any others and there have been no accidents since its public debut. He says the trains are the wave of the future, a fate awaiting all New York City subway lines at some point. I try to ask conductors on the L how they feel about this future.

(Soundbite of interview)

I'm doing a radio story. How do you feel about the robot conductors?

Unidentified Woman: No comment. (unintelligible) tickets. OK.

GOETZ: All right. I'm doing a radio story. I wanted to ask about the robotrains, how you felt about it.

Unidentified Man: No comment, miss. (unintelligible).

GOETZ: No? OK. All right. Thanks. Maintenance worker Tom Donnelly(ph) proudly wears his Vietnam Veteran's cap on the job. He's not on the trains, but he makes sure their tracks are running smoothly. He's skeptical about the overall safety of the trains.

Mr. TOM DONELLY (Maintenance Worker): Because if anybody jumps, like I don't care what they tell you, that computer cannot go ahead (unintelligible) as quick. They should leave well enough alone.

GOETZ: Donnelly adds that transit workers are already dealing with dust, rats and homeless people. The possibility of and out-of-control train just adds to the list. Not everyone is so resistant to the idea. Greg Wasserstrom(ph) and Kendall McKenzie(ph) debate the issue. Wasserstrom is glad there are still human hands near the controls.

Mr. GREG WASSERSTROM (Passenger): So that makes me a little more comfortable with it.

Ms. KENDALL MCKENZIE (Passenger): I like - I'm nostalgic and romantic and old-fashioned. And I like things that run manually and I don't like automation. But if it make things safer and more efficient, then I can't really...

Mr. WASSERSTROM: And what if the robots wore those little conductor hats, those old, tiny conductor hats?

Ms. MCKENZIE: I'd be a little more on board.

(Soundbite of live musician)

GOETZ: Train safety and conductor hats aside, some things probably will never change, the serenade of the subway musician, like it or not. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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