Soldiers, robots share a bond, researcher says

It all started with R2D2. The charming little droid was fussy, brave and friendly, worming its way into the hearts of Star Wars fans decades ago. R2 was a robot human beings could love.

Julie Carpenter, who earned her doctorate in education from the UW in June, isn’t interested in fantasy movie robots. She wants to know something more serious: the social relationship between robots and their operators in the military.

When there is about to be a “fire in the hole”—the warning for an impending detonation— it’s good to have a robot around. Today the U.S. military uses thousands of robots to defuse bombs. These robots often have cameras and are used for reconnaissance, surveillance and bomb disposal. They are used now more than ever to deal with deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are the number one killer of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carpenter wants to determine whether the relationship soldiers have with these robots affects their decision-making. “The results showed that they all very clearly defined the robot as an important tool, yet they still struggled with how to interact with it,” says Carpenter, who is turning her dissertation into a book for a small academic press. She reports that it’s common for soldiers to dress up their robots and name them after dogs, girlfriends or wives. (One odd aspect of her work is that she has to change the nicknames of the robots to protect her research subjects’ privacy.) “This is humorous, but the operator would describe that they saw the robot as an extension of themselves,” she says. Carpenter talked to one soldier whose robot was disabled. “He had worked with this robot for a long time, and when it was finally blown up, he put a sign on it that said ‘why me’?”

Internet postings bear out that some people seem to regard these robots as a pet or another person. Someone with the handle “mastersterling” posted a comment on to someone who had lost a robot: “I am sorry for your loss. Some of the grunts I worked with lost a MARCBOT and they awarded him a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star Medal, and they did a full burial detail with 21-gun salute at Taji (Tajikistan). Some people got upset about it but those little bastards can develop a personality, and they save so many lives.”

If you feel emotionally attached to something, it will affect your decision-making.

Julie Carpenter

A soldier using a robot to defuse a bomb in Iraq or Afghanistan may conduct many stressful missions in one day. Sometimes the difference between life and death is the robot doing this dangerous work. Forming a bond with something that saves lives may be natural. Plus, there is a lot of maintenance required and the military operator ends up in kind of a caregiving role—cleaning the sand out of a unit and maintaining it.

But robots aren’t always on their game. Like people, they have bad days. “Sometimes they just poop out in the field; they fall over,” says Carpenter. Therein lies an emotional downside. When a robot fails, it often means a human being has to be put in harm’s way to dispose of the device. That person is usually not the robot’s operator; instead, it’s the team leader who has to put on the bomb suit and go to work. There is no margin for error. Because the robot operator can perceive the robot as an extension of himself, the operator can feel responsible when it fails, Carpenter says.

“The results show that there is a phenomenon happening that needs to be attended to,” says Carpenter. The robots soldiers currently use don’t look particularly like a person or animal, but they are moving toward more human and animal-like robots. “They actually do use robots right now that climb stairs, but they are continually developing robots with more nimble abilities—like climbing stairs with more agility or scaling different terrains more nimbly,” says Carpenter. She wonders if that will further affect the soldiers’ emotional attachments and decision-making.

“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 says. “If you feel emotionally attached to something, it will affect your decision-making.”

As for R2, he never saw a real battlefield, but had a lasting imprint on humans; he was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2003.