Skynet Goes Online in 3 … 2 …

There is absolutely no question about it: battlefield robots and drones save lives. That’s crucial.

At the same time, however, they can also take lives, and here we get into a morally muddy issue. Our government is just fine with drone assassinations of US citizens, without due process or even a presentation of the evidence. That’s so far gone on every level–moral, legal, ethical–that we really shouldn’t even be debating it. It’s not a power anyone should have.

The problem with the rise in remote-controlled, robot-driven warfare is that it can make war too sanitized, too safe. As Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.” If we can deal death and destruction without risk to ourselves and our soldiers, don’t we become ever-more-tempted to do so?

In a long and interesting story from the AP, we get a glimpse of the future of robot warfare, and it’s not just human-piloted drones, but autonomous robots and vehicles.

Ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have put a spotlight on the growing use of unmanned systems in the skies over the battlefield, from the high-flying Global Hawk to the lethal Predator aircraft and the hand-launched Raven.

But on the ground, thousands of small, remotely operated robots also have proven their value in dealing with roadside bombs, a lethal threat to U.S. troops in both wars. Of more than 6,000 robots deployed, about 750 have been destroyed in action, saving at least that many human lives, the Pentagon’s Robotics Systems Joint Program Office estimates.

Only now is robotics research nearing the stage that the military may soon be able to deploy large ground vehicles capable of performing tasks on their own with little human involvement. The results, among other things, could be more saved lives, less wear and tear on the troops, and reduced fuel consumption.

Full autonomy, engineers say, is still years away.

“The ground domain is much, much tougher than the air domain because it’s so dynamic,” said Myron Mills, who has worked on both aerial and ground robotic systems and now manages an autonomous vehicle program for Maryland-headquartered Lockheed Martin Corp.

Mills said autonomous ground systems face a series of challenges such as dust, fog and debris – as well as avoiding civilians and troops. A path may be passable one moment and littered with obstacles a half hour later due to battle damage.

“It’s just a very, very tough and chaotic environment,” Mills said. “The hardest thing to deal with has been figuring out how to make the system usable for the soldiers and be able to cope with the chaotic environment.

“Enough progress has been made that Lockheed’s Squad Mission Support System, a 5,000-pound (2,268 kg) vehicle designed to carry backpacks and other gear for overloaded foot soldiers, is now being tested in Afghanistan.

Wisconsin-based Oshkosh’s unmanned vehicle system, which would allow one person to control several heavy cargo trucks, has been assessed by U.S. Marine Corps drivers in the United States and is in the final stages of concept development.A four-legged walking robot designed to carry loads for combat foot patrols – the Legged Squad Support System, or LS3 – is due to undergo testing and assessment with troops toward the end of the year, developers at Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics said.

Read the whole thing. Right now, these advanced units are being designed for supply, but how long will it be before they’re designed for combat? The Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon” imagined a society where wars were fought by simulation, with casualties calculated and people showing up to disintegration booths to die nice, clean deaths while preserving the infrastructure. They’d removed the ugliness and destruction from war, and thus became less inclined to do the hard work towards peace.

Please don’t misunderstand me: anything that helps protect the lives of soldiers is good. But we need to guard against the possibility of slipping into a cavalier attitude about warfare. We already appear to be there with the use of assassination drones. (And I really can’t even believe I’m typing those words. The United States of America has assassination drones! It boggles the mind.)We don’t do that. We don’t do it because if we’re not better than our enemies, our fight means nothing.