Monday, 29 August 2016

Humans vs Robots

Do you think you can beat a robot in a fight?  It seems quite common in science fiction, particularly SF movies, for a human to defeat a mechanical foe. I don't think it's that easy, or maybe even possible.

I watched a documentary recently about a factory that had a machine for checking bean quality. It looks at hundreds of beans per second. In milliseconds it would recognise a rotten one and knock the rapidly moving object out of the flow of healthy beans. Imagine that technology where the beans are a crowd of humans, the machine has face recognition software and it is controlling a high powered gun. The intended target wouldn't have a hope. That's picking a face from a crowd, consider a charging mass of troops and the same system designed to head-shot every one. Mechanical, efficient, heartless slaughter. There wouldn't even be a chance for the combatants' nerve to break and run away.

Feel confident you can beat the machine now?

Computer games give insights into things one can't face in every day life, for me today its battling robot war machines.

At present I'm playing a computer game called Overwatch. It's a fun shooter with all sorts of characters. One character is  an object lesson in the problem between fictional war machines and real ones.

His name is Torbjorn. He builds an automatic 'sentry gun', a robot gunner that quickly spots and fires on any enemy it sees. It's disliked because it is very hard to beat, especially when there is more than one. Tirelessly it watches, locks onto an enemy and, if it is you, you're in trouble.

After a month of play the developers are already 'nerfing' the gun, making its projectiles less damaging, because it's too effective. Also in competitive play only one is allowed. Still it kills quickly and mercilessly.

It's a good lesson if you're writing science fiction about robots.  If you think of all the famous robots in SF films and some in literary SF, the robots described are often slow and imprecise.  In Star Wars its all about living creatures, yet surely computers as sophisticated as C3P0 will act faster and be stronger. Robots that advanced should be doing all the fighting, who needs flaky Jedi or Sith. A droid army should just wash over a flesh and blood enemy. That's not the story Mr Lucas wants to tell or others. He likes the romance of the less sophisticated defeating the more. Think Ewoks. He's not alone, remember Avatar had the same fantasy.

I'm not down on Star Wars alone. Look at Robocop (the 1987 version) or Star Trek (Check out the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Arsenal of Freedom' for slow bots that shoot with rubbish accuracy.) or Dr Who, most of their machines are no match for flesh and blood, except in reality they are.

Killer Robots are Already Here

The irony is weapon technology outstripped the Star Wars before the first film came out. In the early twenty-first century robot killing systems exist and are very effective. ED-209 from the early Robocop film was behind what was out there already. Not yet 'thinking', but that's not required to kill.

Used to protect warships, Close-in Weapon Systems like the American Phalanx or Dutch Goalkeeper are rapid fire guns that can pick out and destroy supersonic targets at 2 to 3 miles (3 to 4km) in seconds. The X-wings diving on the Death Star would have been shredded. In Star Trek, the slow photon torpedoes would have been intercepted before harming any spacecraft. Who needs shields. In fact this tech may become the first 'shields'.

Then  there are anti-aircraft missiles that can now identify the type of aircraft they are fired at and work out the best way to destroy the target. This is done in the fraction of seconds between launch and impact. Missiles 'thinking' like that are basically robots.  Then they're are the helper systems that assist the warfighter such as computers for snipers, 'smart' mines that listen for an enemy and identifies it before calculating out how to kill that particular foe.

I used to play fighter aircraft simulators and discovered and then researched the auto-firing air-to-air gun. It was a system where the pilot would select the gun and the target then fly into a dogfight. The human could concentrate on the flying and the trigger wouldn't need to be pulled. At the optimum moment the gun would fire automatically. If the cannon shells in the gun are 'smart' then the flyer has facilitated a robot launching another robot.

Think that's more of a weapon-assist rather than a robot, consider this...

Killer robots are already here. It's well known that flying drones have been used to deliver bombs - that's kill people. In the recent tragic shooting of police officers in Dallas, Texas, a bomb disposal robot was used to kill the suspect. (Read about it here). Yes, both those have human operators, but its not long before the human 'trigger puller' is reduced to the person who gave the order to deploy the weapon system.

There are concerns that once the human is removed from the system, then what will be the outcome?Think a sad teenager running amok with a gun is bad, a single war machine mistaking civilian villagers for enemy combatants will be a tragedy on a different scale. Can you raise a white flag faster than a bullet can travel a hundred meters? Many engineers and scientists are concerned about this and set up the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

I'm not going to talk about morals, though it is worth thinking about. There is a campaign to stop landmines, the indiscriminate killers they are. Killer bots would be worse because you might get 'lucky' with a mine and lose a foot or hand, but then the mine is spent. A bot would quickly recognise it's first shot had failed and act to finish you off. No hope of survival there.

Anyway, I wasn't going to talk morals, I'm going to talk about how you beat them, if you can.

Can you beat killer robots?

I always like to think about how to beat the unbeatable or survive the unsurvivable. It's a hobby. Check back to my previous post Avoid Unbelievable Reality in Your Stories where I discuss the impossible like surviving a fall from a great height or being shot at point-blank range.

Head-to-head, if you're an ordinary soul like me, I think you'd be dead. It would be like me going up against a cage-fighter. What if you were a highly-skilled warrior - you'd be dead. The moment the machine recognised you as a threat - boom. Body amour might delay the inevitable, but it would likely be programmed to defeat any protection.

The easiest way to defeat any opponent is before it sees you as a threat, for killer machines stop them being built or destroy them in their factories.

Next is to hit them before they see you. Consider the challenge of trying to sneak up on a prey animal using sight, hearing and smell to detect you, consider a machine might not be limited to our senses, but use radar, thermal imaging and all the wonders of science to spot your approach.

Doesn't look like much hope, but there are ways.

Decoys are the first. Military aircraft use them to fox homing missiles with flares and chaff to confuse their senses. Some forces even use fake aircraft to draw the attention of weapon systems while killing blows are delivered by the real fighters.

Maybe infantry will be carrying decoy systems in the future, or have fake targets running along with them.

The old favourite camouflage is next. Don't look like a target. Challenge the machine to recognise it has to shoot you.

Finally is how you attack. Thinking guns, bombs or magic glowing swords? What about software? Get into the enemy's head (or processor) has always been a good way to win. It could be as you step into the fray your 'wingman' has hacked the system first. Maybe your 'wingman' is a robot fighting the robot for you in cyberspace or for real.

If you've got any ideas on how to beat machines let me know.

It's interesting the Overwatch back story is about a war with thinking machines and the strange solutions humanity selected to win what appeared to be an impossible war. Their final solution - make peace.

Now if only humans could do that, wouldn't this world be great?

Useful Links

Play Overwatch - Learn about the game.  Learn about it's lore too.
Campaign to Stop Killer Robots
Here's a list of close in weapons systems and videos - slow loading bulky page
M93 Hornet Anti-Tank Mine - Is this a mine, which should be banned, or a killer robot, which should be feared, you decide.
Ways to fox surveillance tech  - Ideas to confuse machines.