Super Humans and Killer Robots: How the US Army Envisions Warfare in 2050
Image Credit: flickr/Nick Royr

Super Humans and Killer Robots: How the US Army Envisions Warfare in 2050


A new breed of super humans and autonomous combat robots will be two of the key features of the battlefield in 2050, according to a new report summarizing the findings of a U.S. Army-sponsored workshop.

The workshop, held in March 2015 in Maryland, brought together a diverse group of experts to envision the 2050 tactical ground battlefield. Their conclusion: humans will be in the minority on the modern battleground:

A time traveler from today would be immediately taken with the “over-crowding” of the battlefield of 2050 populated by all manner of robots, robots that greatly outnumber human fighters, and robot-looking humans.

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In detail, the report lists seven specific capabilities that will shape future land warfare: augmented humans; automated decision making and autonomous processes; misinformation as a weapon; micro-targeting; large-scale self-organization and collective decision making; cognitive modeling of the opponent; and the ability to understand and cope in a contested, imperfect information environment.

However, perhaps most disconcerting for policy makers and senior officers in 2015, the workshop participants furthermore predict that the much faster 2050 battle rhythm will overwhelm soldiers with the consequence that machines will have to make autonomous decisions with little human oversight:

(…) [H]umans will no longer be able to be “in the loop,” but will instead need to operate “on the loop.” The difference being that in the former, human decisions are a required step in a process and thus humans are exercising positive control; while in the later, humans can only observe the behaviors that are taking place (and in some cases the decisions that have been made and the reasons why), but they can only act after the fact or in anticipation of expected behaviors.

While the robots of the 2050 battlefield would resemble systems that exist today such as armed drones and fire-and-forget missiles, they would “possess significantly greater capabilities of machine reasoning and intelligent autonomy than those existing today,” according to the report:

Robots will commonly operate in teams or swarms in the battlespace of 2050 in the same way Soldiers act in teams today. These self-organized and/or collaborative collections of robots would operate with varying degrees of freedoms (from being actively managed to being autonomous) under dynamically established rules of engagement/priorities. Robot swarms and teams (as well as individual robots) would be assigned a variety of tasks.

Of course, relying on this force of largely autonomous killer bots as well as other new warfighting technologies would create new attack vectors for the enemy to exploit. What for example would happen if enemy hackers managed to seize control of U.S. Army robots through spoofing (“behavior hacking”)? Could they in a Terminator-like scenario turn their weapons on their human comrades in arms?

Perhaps, since on the 2050 battlefield humans and robots will fight alongside each other, the experts believe:

The principal Army unit operating in 2050 will be mixed human-robot teams. To enable humans to partner effectively with robots, human team members will be enhanced in a variety of ways. These super humans will feature exoskeletons, possess a variety of implants, and have seamless access to sensing and cognitive enhancements.

Most shocking, the workshop participants also expect genetically engineered soldiers fighting next to “unenhanced humans”:

[T]hey [genetically engineered super humans] will have enhanced physical capabilities, senses, and cognitive powers. The presence of super humans on the battlefield in the 2050 timeframe is highly likely because the various components needed to enable this development already exist and are undergoing rapid evolution.

However, before any of this becomes reality various obstacles will have to be overcome. First and foremost new command and control concepts would need to be developed to successfully manage, integrate and lead human, superhuman and robot warriors. This would mean creating a new hybrid cognitive command architecture that successfully merges artificial with human intelligence.

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