How AI-powered robots will protect the networked soldier

DARPA's "Squad X" uses Android tablets, encrypted real-time communication, and Artificial Intelligence to save lives.

Image: Juggernaut Defense

The safety of troops in the very near future will rely on Artificial Intelligence-assisted tablets and small screens, networked to drones in the air that feed data back down to ground personnel equipped with information-rich HUD visors.

And robots. Lots and lots of robots.

"Robots are going to help humans in dangerous situations contain and control a region," said Dave Bossert, DARPA Program Manager and Senior Engineering Fellow at Raytheon. "Maintaining advantage, communicating, and understanding an area is as good as or better than being aggressive."

In a recent interview Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work expanded on the idea of how AI will power robots in hazardous situations. "Ten years from now, if the first person through a breach isn't a robot, shame on us."

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The networked soldier, Bossert said, will rely heavily on custom-built Android tablets and several wearable devices. The Android Tactical Assault Kit, he said, allows soldiers to chat and share video, maps, and other types of information in real-time with pilots and drones in the sky. The kit also includes a radio, a direction-finder, and a jammer.

Image: Raytheon

"Squad X" is a name used to describe several overlapping technologies, rather than a single product, Bossert said. "Squad X is structured in such a way that technologies are integrated into current systems, to make them more effective."

The biggest threat vectors, he said, are malware infecting commercial systems, and counterfeit parts. "One of the key [modifications] is cybersecurity and information assurance [technology]." While Bossert could not discuss specific encryption technologies, he emphasized, "secure crypto between RF nodes--to protect data in motion, and data at rest within the computing devices--is critical."

The backend--particularly the data processing, communications, and interface device tech--relies on several commercial technologies, modified and retrofitted with military-specific technologies. Operators will wear augmented reality displays that present information tailored to a specific mission. "Most importantly," Bossert said, "there is a synchronized workflow between the backend operator, and a tactical edge user so that each user has shared situational awareness of the mission."

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Are robot-empowered, digitally assisted soldiers ethical? "A lot of militarily relevant technologies are coming through the commercial sector--artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, biotechnology," said Work at the recent Securing Tomorrow forum. "We will not delegate lethal authority for a machine to make a decision. The only time we'll delegate [such] authority [to a machine] is in things that go faster than human reaction time, like cyber or electronic warfare."

One fundamental tenet of the DARPA program is that networked machines must help humans make better decisions. In other words, Bossert said, technology and robots can help people better understand an environment, but they cannot fight. "[AI and robots] will only proliferate more and more," he said. "Especially since younger soldiers have been raised in the digital age, and are more comfortable with the technology."