Friday, May 11, 2007

Our Humanity

A touching story from the Washington Post.

Hat Tip: The Belmont Club

The most effective way to find and destroy a land mine is to step on it.

This has bad results, of course, if you're a human. But not so much if you're a robot and have as many legs as a centipede sticking out from your body. That's why Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built something like that. At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.

Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.

The human in command of the exercise, however -- an Army colonel -- blew a fuse.

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

I'm proud of that Colonel.

Although, I'm not sure which it is more inhumane to, the soldier/operator or the bot. It an amazing intrinsic ability we have to project our humanity onto things, pets, probably just about anything. It is the well from which we draw our empathy, our ability to feel and understand someone elses pain.

I'm sure there is a valid arguement to which the little robot critter is just a well engineered mass of nuts and bolts; that a soldier's life is more important than the robot. But I think that that Colonel was thinking of the soldier who had to drive that machine across the minefield, watching his "partner" taking it for the team - repeatedly. It would require more than nerves of steel to my mind, it would require a lessening of the heart. And that my friends is NOT what we're about is it?

Of course, in my own sick way I was thinking of this while I was reading the article:

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