Killer robots pose moral and branding issues for University

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The Gladiator is a vehicle that looks like a miniature cross between a tank and a Jeep. It can climb over huge mounds of rock and navigate an urban jungle. It is a remote-controlled robot equipped with cameras that can see through smoke and darkness. If it seems like an awesome toy, keep in mind that as it conquers terrain both rugged and urban, the Gladiator can launch tear gas and flashbang grenades, or spray a hail of bullets from a swiveling machine gun atop the vehicle.

Robots that can kill are no longer confined to science fiction — these weapons are being produced right here at Carnegie Mellon. The Gladiator was created by the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute’s commercial branch-off. In 2005, the United States Marine Corps gave NREC $26.4 million to produce Gladiator prototypes.

Last Friday, political activists from the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) blocked the entrances to NREC’s facility in Lawrenceville to protest the production of weapons of war like the Gladiator. Part of POG’s complaints about the NREC and federally funded research at Carnegie Mellon is that students may not be aware of how much money governmental agencies like the Department of Defense (DoD) are pouring into our university. Carnegie Mellon students should be aware that military funding has become pervasive on campus. Beyond the School of Computer Science and its Robotic Institute, funds also find their way into departments like psychology and philosophy without students’ knowledge.

Robotics Institute affiliates like NREC and the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) were initially established with federal money. NREC received a $2.4 million grant from NASA to help get started, and the SEI is completely federally funded. The program was established in 1984 with $103 million of DoD money, and it received another $411 million contract in 2005. Carnegie Mellon is now one of the largest academic military contractors in the U.S., among universities like MIT and Johns Hopkins. The university has become such a powerhouse for military research that it even beat out advanced tech company Lockheed Martin for the multi-million dollar Gladiator contract.

NREC’s Gladiator robot is part of Congress’ National Defense Authorization Act of 2001, which seeks to convert at least one-third of the Armed Forces’ ground vehicles to being unmanned by 2015 in an attempt to save American lives in wartime. On its website, NREC says that it pursued proposals by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (a part of DoD), the Army Research Lab, and the Office of Naval Research because it was well-equipped to do so and because it was “excited about the force protection mission enabled by UGV [unmanned ground vehicle] technology.”

The move towards unmanned weapons of warfare and Carnegie Mellon’s participation in the development of this technology are not reason for celebration. While UGVs will undoubtedly save American lives in Iraq and future combat, they do not take into account the lives of “enemies.” UGVs may remove the discomfort of taking another human being’s life, but that only makes it easier to kill. Moreover, these types of weapons will change the entire cost/benefit analysis of war in an incredibly anti-humanitarian way. If loss of American life is dramatically reduced in direct combat, it will be easier for the American mindset to pursue further imperial action and force our form of government and culture on the world community.

This also contributes to an inherent branding issue at Carnegie Mellon. A recent poll in The Washington Post cites that nearly 75 percent of U.S. residents think the number of casualties in Iraq is unacceptable, and nearly 60 percent think the war was not worth fighting — in fact, the number of people who negatively associate this war with Vietnam is on the rise. Meanwhile, youth voting numbers surge with each election and lean democract. One breakdown shows that students who major in subjects such as science and engineering, social sciences, and humanities and arts — three of Carnegie Mellon’s biggest attractors — were more likely to choose Kerry over Bush. The two factors youths were most concerned with? Moral values and the situation in Iraq.

The government funding of the Robotics Institute seems to be a bragging point for Carnegie Mellon, but given the political leanings of potential and current students, it’s hard to see why. Supporting the war by providing research for machines that kill is counterintuitive to attracting and keeping students — and graduating satisfied students is key to receiving donations from alumni that in turn help our endowment grow. As it stands now, we’re increasingly being branded as a tool of the U.S. government. The nickname “Carnegie Military University” has even taken over in some circles outside campus.

The university’s projected image conflicts with the real-life Carnegie Mellon. The university’s mission statement includes serving students “by teaching them … the value of a commitment to … ethical behavior, society, and respect for one another” as well as pursuing “the advantages provided by a diverse … community open to the exchange of ideas, where discovery, creativity, and personal … development can flourish,” yet it also allows ROTC, which keeps the “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue,” policy, to maintain their presence on campus. We would benefit from choosing a mission statement we’re willing to enforce, both through inclusion of some groups and organizations and exclusion of others.

There are ways to keep our mission statement alive and keep the government out. The NREC website states that Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute is “the world’s largest robotics research and development organization.” With so many skills and capabilities available, there are as many ways to focus and develop our skills into progressive and humanitarian products. For as much as the Gladiator will destroy lives, there are ways to redirect our learning and research towards things that will enhance lives instead.

Meet Tank, the roboceptionist for the School of Computer Science, who answers questions and even tells stories. Meet Pearl, a Nursebot that resulted from a collaborative project between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and is a personal assistant for elderly people. Meet the Hug, a product of the design and human-computer interaction programs that uses sensors and wireless technology within a pillow to provide emotional support — in the form of a hug — for people whose loved ones might be too far away to provide it for them.

These are the kinds of robotics projects Carnegie Mellon should be proud to tout — those that have the bettering of people’s lives in mind. It’s time to break away from government funding, to break away from “being a cog in a war machine,” and stand up for what’s right both publicly and privately. It’s in everyone’s best interests to separate ourselves from the government, and from creating soulless killing machines.