Friday, October 19, 2007

Don't piss off your Roomba.

Don't piss of your Roomba. No really, don't piss it off. It's got a bigger brother. From Wired:

We're not used to thinking of [real robots] this way. But many advanced military weapons are essentially robotic -- picking targets out automatically, slewing into position, and waiting only for a human to pull the trigger. Most of the time. Once in a while, though, these machines start firing mysteriously on their own. The South African National Defence Force "is probing whether a software glitch led to an antiaircraft cannon malfunction that killed nine soldiers and seriously injured 14 others during a shooting exercise on Friday."


[SA National Defence Force spokesman] told The Star that it “is assumed that there was a mechanical problem, which led to the accident. The gun, which was fully loaded, did not fire as it normally should have," he said. "It appears as though the gun, which is computerised, jammed before there was some sort of explosion, and then it opened fire uncontrollably, killing and injuring the soldiers."
Fortunately (?) we are reassured:
Defence Ministry spokesperson Sam Mkhwanazi said the "friendly-fire" tragedy was the worst he could remember.

"Without hesitation I can say it is very rare; I can't even think of one - I can't remember when last an accident of this magnitude happened."
This isn't reassuring. You were supposed to reassure me... You can't remember? You could forget an event of this magnitude?

Is it just me, or does giving firing capability to a robot targeting system seem like a bad idea? One little software bug, and it's choosing the wrong targets. I'm not worried about a Terminator-style rebellion here, I'm more worried that if the number of software bugs in your average computer is any indicator, they're going to have a lot of extremely tragic software errors...

Meanwhile, Roomba is also getting in on the action:
The makers of the cuter-than-cute robotic vacuum cleaner are rolling out a new machine: A big, fast-moving, semi-autonomous 'bot capable of killing a whole bunch of people at once.

Early versions of the iRobot Warrior X700 "are slated to be ready by the second half of next year," according to Army Times' Kris Osborn. And unlike previous offerings from iRobot -- which tended to be on the light, bordering-on-flimsy side -- the Warrior will weigh up to 250 pounds. It'll be able to lug a 500-pound payload, and carry 150 pounds with a newly muscular arm. Which will mean the machine is more than buff enough to pack heat.

“We’re looking at urban warfare... It can be deploying weapons systems. It can be doing re-supply operations, taking ammo or water to troops who are pinned down, perimeter security and building clearing,” Helen Greiner, iRobot chairman and co-founder, tells Army Times.

“Right now, it can go 10 miles per hour. When we finish the development, it will be able to do a four-minute mile,” said retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joe Dyer, iRobot’s president of the government and industrial division. “You are starting to see the first robot that can really haul your pack and be not only a partner but be a stronger and faster partner.”

Unlike other armed robots -- which are entirely remote-controlled -- the Warriors are "being engineered with advanced software, giving them the ability to perform some battlefield functions autonomously."
I have a picture in my head of a little Roomba, moving through a room, randomly bumping into things, and when it bumps into something soft and squishy, shooting it. In all seriousness, I would hope that they could get the software designed in such a way as to get rid of all the bugs (unlike standard systems) but the story above suggests that perhaps programmers are not able to write bug-free software. Please don't give the Roomba guns!


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