Daily Archives: May 19, 2009

Lethal robot warriors to be programmed for “ethical killing”

MAARS robot

Lethal military robots are currently deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ground-based robots like QinetiQ’s MAARS robot (shown here), are armed with weapons to shoot insurgents, appendages to disarm bombs, and surveillance equipment to search buildings. A Georgia Tech computer science professor is developing a package of software and hardware that tells robots when and what to fire.

Robot warriors will get a guide to ethics

When and what to fire will be part of hardware and software ‘package’

MSNBC | May 18, 2009

By Eric Bland

Smart missiles, rolling robots, and flying drones currently controlled by humans, are being used on the battlefield more every day. But what happens when humans are taken out of the loop, and robots are left to make decisions, like who to kill or what to bomb, on their own?

Ronald Arkin, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech, is in the first stages of developing an “ethical governor,” a package of software and hardware that tells robots when and what to fire. His book on the subject, “Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots,” comes out this month.

He argues not only can robots be programmed to behave more ethically on the battlefield, they may actually be able to respond better than human soldiers.

“Ultimately these systems could have more information to make wiser decisions than a human could make,” said Arkin. “Some robots are already stronger, faster and smarter than humans. We want to do better than people, to ultimately save more lives.”

Lethal military robots are currently deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ground-based robots like iRobot’s SWORDS or QinetiQ’s MAARS robots, are armed with weapons to shoot insurgents, appendages to disarm bombs, and surveillance equipment to search buildings. Flying drones can fire at insurgents on the ground. Patriot missile batteries can detect incoming missiles and send up other missiles to intercept and destroy them.

No matter where the robots are deployed however, there is always a human involved in the decision-making, directing where a robot should fly and what munitions the robot should use if it encounters resistance.

Humans aren’t expected to be removed any time soon. Arkin’s ethical governor is designed for a more traditional war where civilians have evacuated the war zone and anyone pointing a weapon at U.S. troops can be considered a target.

Arkin’s challenge is to translate the 150-plus years of codified, written military law into terms that robots can understand and interpret themselves. In many ways, creating an independent war robot is easier than many other types of artificial intelligence because the laws of war have existed for over 150 years and are clearly stated in numerous treaties.

“We tell soldiers what is right and wrong,” said Arkin. “We don’t allow soldiers to develop ethics on their own.”

One possible scenario for Arkin’s ethical governor is an enemy sniper posted in building next to an important cultural setting, like a mosque or cemetery. A wheeled military robot emerges from cover and the sniper fires on it. The robot finds the sniper and has a choice; does it use a grenade launcher or its own sniper rifle to bring down the fighter?

Using geographical data on the surrounding buildings, the robot would decide to use the sniper rifle to minimize any potential damage to the surrounding buildings.

For a human safely removed from combat, the choice of a rifle seems obvious. But a soldier under fire might take extreme action, possibly blowing up the building and damaging the nearby building.

“Robots don’t have an inherent right to self-defense and don’t get scared,” said Arkin. “The robots can take greater risk and respond more appropriately.”

Fear might influence human decision-making, but math rules for robots. Simplified, various actions can be classified as ethical or unethical, and assigned a certain value. Starting with a lethal action and subtracting the various ethical responses to the situation equals an unethical response. Other similar equations governor the various possible actions.

The difficult thing is to determine what types of actions go into those equations, and for that humans will be necessary, and ultimately responsible for.

Robots, freed of human masters and capable of lethality “are going to happen,” said Arkin. “It’s just a question of how much autonomy will be put on them and how fast that happens.”

Giving robots specific rules and equations will work in an ideal, civilian-free war, but critics point out such a thing is virtually impossible to find on today’s battlefield.

“I challenge you to find a war with no civilians,” said Colin Allen, a professor at Indiana University who also coauthored a book on the ethics of military robots.

An approach like Arkin’s is easier to program and will appear sooner, but a bottom-up approach, where the robot learns the rules of war itself and makes its own judgment is a far better scenario, according to Allen.

The problem with a bottom-up approach is the the technology doesn’t yet exist, and likely won’t for another 50 years, says Allen.

Whenever autonomous robots are deployed, humans will still be in the loop, at least legally. If a robot does do something ethically wrong, despite its programming, the software engineer or the builder of the robot will likely be held accountable, says Michael Anderson at Franklin and Marshall University.

Passengers, Advocates Up in Arms Over “Naked Picture” Airport Scanners


Images of a TSA official taken using the new “full-body” scanner technology being piloted by the TSA. Note the anatomical features in the image, and the blurred face, which the TSA insists is enough to protect privacy.  (Source: TSA/CNN.com)

Daily Tech | May 18, 2009

By Jason Mick

The scanners blur the face, but anatomy remains relatively visible

Terrorism remains a significant concern and is a sensitive topic in the U.S.  However, there are those who argue that some security efforts go a bit too far when it comes to protecting air travellers from attacks.  Among such sensitive topics, none is drawing as much criticism and attention as the recently deployed “whole-body imaging” scanners.

The new scanner was first deployed in Phoenix, Arizona, in November 2007, and has since been deployed at 40 airports.  The 40 deployed machines cost $170,000 each and provide an alternative to pat-down for customers repeatedly setting off the metal detector.

The system has its advantages — it is much faster than a pat-down search, taking only 15 to 30 seconds, where a pat-down search can take up to 3 to 4 minutes.  The device also is touted as very safe, using millimeter wave technology, and emitting approximately 10,000 times less radio frequency than a cell phone.

However, the unsavory aspect to some is that the system reveals semi-nude images and anatomical features according to CNN.  The image produced is milky white with the face and the skin blurred to protect the identity.  Two officers work the scanner — one leads the passenger into it, and never sees the images; the other takes and examines the image, but never sees the passenger.  The system is designed to provide extra protection to peoples’ identity.

Despite the presence of visible anatomical features, including male genitalia, Tulsa screener Debbie Shacklett states, “[The images] are not pornographic at all. I don’t look at them as people. I look at them as a thing that could have something on it.”

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is fighting the deployment, though, says they represent a grotesque invasion of privacy.  She states, “People need to know what’s happening, with no sugar-coating and no spinning.  We don’t have the policy to hold (the TSA) to what they say. They’re writing their own rule book at this point.”

She adds, “What they’re showing you now is a dumbed-down version of what this technology is capable of doing.  Having blurry images shouldn’t blur the issue”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has introduced legislation to ban the machines.  Like Ms. Coney, he is opposed to the scanners and the clearer “backscatter” technology scanners, which the TSA says it does not currently deploy.

Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union comments on the issue, “A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don’t think we should pretend those are the only choices.  People shouldn’t be humiliated by their government,” to satisfy security concerns.

The TSA says that the deployment is still in the pilot phase.  However, officials say they say that they believe the program has been a success so far, and they hope to see it expanded to more airports.  In the meantime, the issue of these blurred nude images seems unlikely to be unlikely to go away.

New record low temperatures for May could cause crop damage in Ohio

News Herald | May 18, 2009

By Jeff Frischkorn

A new record low temperature was officially recorded today as the continued see-saw spring weather infiltrates Northeast Ohio.

And this chilling has left area growers the chore of assessing any plant damage.

The new record low for the date is 34 degrees and set at 5:20 a.m., Monday. The previous low record for May 18 was 36 degrees set in 1985. These temperatures are the official benchmarks as established by the National Weather Service office at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Temperatures were even lower elsewhere. Some locations in the Snow Belt recorded lows that dipped into the upper 20s, said Weather Service meteorologist Mark Adams.

“Last week we also saw patchy frost,” he said. “Everything came together just right for the cold weather with no winds and clear skies. That allowed the heat to radiate out and for temperatures to drop into the low to mid 30s in most locations.”

The resulting frost has yielded mixed amount of plant damage to area crops.

“I drove around this morning about 6:30 a.m. or so and we had some frost but even our green beans — which are just coming up — didn’t look too bad,” said Bob Sage, co-owner of Sage’s Apples in Chardon Township.

As for apples and peaches, their blooming has largely passed. And with tree-level temperatures in the upper 30s on Monday, they were spared from any serious damage, Sage said.

As for grapes, there may be “10 to 15 percent damage,” said Tony Debevc, owner of Chalet Debonne Vineyard in Madison Township.

Debevc said the temperature fell to 29 degrees and was accompanied by a good level of moisture in the air that helped create frost.

However, that is when the vineyard went to work to protect its investment, Debevc said.

“We do have wind machines that helped mix the warm, inverted air with the cold air that settled in,” he said. “Without the wind machines I believe we’d have had much more significant damage. I’m pretty pleased with what I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, strawberries could be impacted the most, especially those fields not watered by irrigation or covered somehow.

At least the duration of the frost wasn’t as long as first feared to do any likely “sustainable damage,” said Les Ober, agent with the Ohio State University’s Extension Service in Geauga County.

“We got down to 31 degrees and turned on our irrigation system around midnight and didn’t turned it off until around 8:30 a.m. I think I beat the frost,” said also Todd West, owner of West Orchards in Perry Township.

“But I would say that unless the strawberries were irrigated or covered probably they suffered frost damage.”

If people did put out annual flowers or tomato plants and which weren’t covered likely will have to replant, Ober also said.

“We consistently say to people who want to plant tomatoes not do so until around Memorial Day. You’re pretty safe after May 25, though I’ve seen frost all the way up to the first part of June,” Ober said.

Though tonight’slow temperatures should dip into the upper 30s, a new record low is not likely. The existing low benchmark for the date is 33 degrees and set in 1976, Adams said.