Science·In Depth

How robots are transforming war

CBC News talks to Leslea Mair, co-producer of the documentary Remote Control War

Film producer Leslea Mair talks about new documentary Remote Control War

Pilotless aircraft like this Auvsi drone are among the 7,000 flying robots used by the U.S. military, largely in Iraq and Afghanistan. ((CBC))

Sleek, pilotless drones soar over the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, dropping bombs and killing people down below. At lunchtime, the U.S. soldiers controlling them pop down to the local fast food joint for a burger — in Indian Springs, Nev.

That is the reality of modern warfare as portrayed in a new documentary titled Remote Control War, which premieres Thursday evening on CBC-TV.


Remote Control War airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV. It repeats Friday at 10 p.m. on CBC News Network.

The film looks at the rise of military robotics since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. The U.S. alone now has a fleet of 7,000 military robots in the air and another 12,000 on the ground. Canada and 42 other countries also use military robots.

The documentary questions what the trend means for militaries and civilians around the world. And it also offers a glimpse of what the military robots of the future might look like, from a tank-treaded, camera-laden robot armed with machine guns zipping through the woods to swarms of autonomous bird-sized flying robots working together on a collective mission.

CBC News spoke to Leslea Mair, president and CEO of Zoot Films, who co-produced Remote Control War.

How did this project come about?

I got a Roomba! Honestly, I have a robot vacuum cleaner, and I love my robot vacuum cleaner. And we started hearing stuff about the drones and robotics in the military in the news and … realizing, you know, the same technology that's being used in my little vacuum cleaner is actually being used in the field of war.

And while I'm happy to hand off responsibility for the dust bunnies in my house to my robot, I'm not so sure I'm comfortable with handing off the idea of who gets shot and when and how to a machine. And that certainly seemed to be the way we were going.

What role are robots playing in wars right now?

Well, right now, there's something like 43 countries [that] have robotics that they are using out in the field, primarily in the form of unmanned drones — some armed, some not. We're in the early stages of seeing deployment of ground robots as well. Many of those are for bomb disposal.

The development of ground robots like the iRobot Packbot was motivated largely by the desire to carry out bomb disposal without endangering human life. ((CBC))

The U.S., obviously, is the leader … By 2015, they estimate … one-third of their forces will be unmanned. It's a very big shift.

Why use robots? What are the advantages?

The military … [likes] to give them jobs that are dirty, dangerous and dull.

Bomb disposal was the big one that really motivated some development of ground robotics because people die trying to defuse IEDs [improvised explosive devices] out in the field.

If the bomb goes off, you can replace that robot…. You don't have to send that really awful letter to somebody's mother or wife or sister or brother to say that they're not coming home.

What will robots be capable of in the future that they can't do now?

I think almost the question should be, 'What won't they be capable of?'

Already, they're flying the missions themselves. I think the vision for the future, certainly down the road, is for robots to be able to pretty much do anything a person can do.

You talked a bit in your film about who's responsible [for robots' actions]. Is that a big problem?

If an individual soldier makes a terrible mistake [such as shooting the wrong person], he's responsible for that mistake, and there's a process for dealing with whether or not that mistake was made in good faith ... whether there should be punishment or not.

A robot can't take responsibility for that individual mistake, so whose responsibility is it? It gets very confused and very muddy, and we don't have a process in place for dealing with that.

In the future, military robots like the VECNA bear are expected to be able to do any job that humans can do. ((CBC))

Inevitably, a mistake will be made … One of the people we interviewed, Noel Sharkey [professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield], said the artificial intelligence isn't even there to tell the difference between a child and a soldier.

Now that you've finished this project, what concerns you the most?

A lot of things come out of the military. They start with a fairly benign use of something, then they go to a more aggressive use of it, then there's aspects of it that bleed into consumer society.

With robots, it started with surveillance … and then they started arming them, and now, we have some really sophisticated toys out on the market that are a lot more autonomous.

As people have more access to it, I think there should also be some concern that the people we should be afraid of can also use this technology. The next Timothy McVeigh isn't going to be driving a van with a fertilizer bomb in the back of it. He just might program a swarm because he can get the components at Wal-Mart.

I think the thing for me, too, is that robots aren't inherently good or bad. It's what we decide to do with them that's the really important thing. The point of the whole documentary is, really, we have to start having a conversation among ourselves about what role should robots really have and what are we OK with.