New York Times science writer John Markoff reported on Sept.23 that the US military “lags” in development of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), which is sort of true if you compare the status of UGVs with that of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). The real reason, as Markoff acknowledges, has to do with the technical difficulty of locomotion on rough and varied terrain, around obstacles and through impediments, as compared with the relative ease of flying through unobstructed air. But that didn’t prevent gawker, digg and numerous tweeters from reading the article as a warning that the US military is falling behind someone in a race for “killer robots.”
Actually, Markoff does clearly say that the Pentagon is falling behind Google. In fact, the entire article seems to suggest that the military has neglected land robots, which is simply untrue, as I explain in my response, posted on my own blog.
I felt compelled to respond because, just days before Markoff’s article was posted (it was also included in the Sept. 24 New York print edition), I had published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists an analysis of US policy for autonomous weapons which shows that it is actually an aggressive, “full speed ahead” policy. I don’t know if Markoff read my piece before he wrote his, but if you put them side by side and step back until you can only read the headlines, his looks like a rebuttal of mine, even though he is far too good a writer to say something that is actually wrong, and therefore he doesn’t actually contradict anything I wrote.