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Opinion: Thinking Weapons Are Closer Than We Think

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Man Transportable Robot System "Talon" Mark 2 approaches a suspected bomb maker's building during an exercise. US Navy Photo

Man Transportable Robot System “Talon” Mark 2 approaches a suspected bomb maker’s building during an exercise. US Navy Photo

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has constructed a neuromorphic device—the functioning structure of a mammalian brain—out of artificial materials. DARPA’s project, SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) signals a new level for biomimicry in engineering. The project team included IBM, HRL, and their subcontracted universities.

Biomimicry is not new. The most recent example is the undulating “robojelly” developed by the Universirty of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech. This new drone swims through the sea like a jellyfish, collecting energy from the oxygen in the water, as does any breathing organism. There is also the graceful Pesto SmartBird, an aerial drone that mimics the shape and physical flight of birds. A knockoff was found crashed in Pakistan. If not the shape, at least the actions are often mimicked, as shown by UPenn’s quadrotors being programmed to use crane claws like predatory birds rather than construction cranes. However, these examples of biomimicry only cover the external actions of an animal. SyNAPSE goes deeper, building a synthetic version of the mind that develops these actions.

In the quest for autonomous machines, the suggestions have been either-or: machines programmed to be like brains or the integration of biological processors to provide that processing flexibility. DARPA has found the “middle path” in constructing a series of synthetic synapses out of nano-scale wire. This takes the physical form of those biological processors and constructs them from the base material of conventional computers. According to James Gimzewski at UCLA, the device manages information through a method of self-organization, a key trait of autonomous action and learning, “Rather than move information from memory to processor, like conventional computers, this device processes information in a totally new way.” Moving past the surface mimicking of physical shape and function, SyNAPSE will mimic living organisms’ basic way of processing information.

However, as the possibility for real autonomy approaches, the legal challenge becomes more urgent. An article in Defense News summarizes the catalogue of problems quite well, from accidental breaches of airspace/territorial waters, to breaches in navigational rules, to accidental deaths all caused by machines not having a direct operator to hold responsible. However, as the director of naval intelligence Vice Admiral Kendall Card noted, “Unmanned systems are not a luxury; they are absolutely imperative to the future of our Navy.” Like the CIA’s armed predator program, someone will eventually open Pandora’s box and take responsibility for their new machines to gain the operational edge. DARPA’s SyNAPSE project is that next step toward an autonomous reality.