Soldiers' Emotional Attachments To Their Robots May Affect Decision-Making In Battle

By Josh Lieberman on September 23, 2013 2:52 PM EDT

eod robot
Soldiers can become emotionally attached to their battlefield robots, according to researcher Julie Carpenter. (Photo: Reuters)

As robots become increasingly prevalent on the battlefield, the relationship between soldiers and the machines that assist them can take on an emotional dimension. Julie Carpenter, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Washington, has set out to explore the emotional attachment between soldier and robot. Carpenter is planning to write a book about those relationships, with a particular interest in whether soldiers may come to care enough about their robots to avoid sending them into combat situations.

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If the idea of a solider getting so attached to a robot that he doesn't want to see it "die" seems unlikely, a recent Reddit thread would seem to refute that. "I am sorry for your loss," one poster wrote in response to a soldier whose MARCbot (a robot that disarms explosives) had been destroyed in battle. "Some of the grunts I worked with lost a MARCBOT and they awarded him a Purple Heart...and they did a full burial detail with 21 gun salute at Taji [in Iraq]. Some people got upset about it but those little bastards can develop a personality, and they save so many lives."

For her research, Carpenter interviewed 23 Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel, soldiers who send robots in to disarm explosives. Although many of the interviewees (which were 22 men and 1 woman) told Carpenter that attachments to their robots didn't affect how they used the robots in battle, they also admitted to feeling anger, frustration and sadness when their robot was destroyed. The soldiers often named their robots after celebrities, wives and girlfriends.

"They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet," Carpenter said. "They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add 'poor little guy,' or they'd say they had a funeral for it."

Though robots like the MARCbot look like, well, robots, more human-looking machines are almost certainly going to find their way onto the battlefields of the future (just check out the DARPA video below). When that happens, Carpenter wonders whether soldiers will have trouble sending a human-looking robot into battle if they consider the robot a pet, or even a friend.

"You don't want someone to hesitate using one of these robots if they have feelings toward the robot that goes beyond a tool," she said. "If you feel emotionally attached to something, it will affect your decision-making."

Carpenter isn't the first person to look into soldiers' robot relationships. In 2009, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution and author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century" shared stories of Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel becoming emotional over their robotic helpers. Singer said that one EOD soldier brought a destroyed robot to a military repair shop and asked whether they could fix "Scooby-Doo." The soldier was told that it was not possible, but that he'd receive a new robot. The soldier was inconsolable.

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