The US Army Developed Robots to Follow Orders
Wed, April 21, 2021

The US Army Developed Robots to Follow Orders

The US Army is teaching a robot how to interpret and follow orders. / Photo Credit: Niyazz via Shutterstock


You might expect military robots to be intelligent, but on the contrary, they have always been dumb, according to David Hambling of magazine MIT Technology Review. For example, the US Army’s PackBot used for inspections and bomb disposals is operated via remote control and has no onboard intelligence. Now, the Army wants intelligent robots that are intelligent enough to “follow orders without constant supervision.” 

The Army’s research lab developed a software that allows robots to carry out tasks, follow and understand verbal instructions, and report back. A robot that is capable of understanding commands and “has a degree of machine intelligence” would someday move ahead of troops to check for IEDs or ambushes. It would also be used to reduce the number of soldiers deployed on the ground. 

Nicholas Roy of MIT has been working on the said problem for almost 10 years as part of Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance, a decade-long project led by the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). The team comprised of researchers from MIT and Carnegie Mellon along with government institutions such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and robotics firms like Boston Dynamics.

The program concluded last month. The team used deep learning to help the robot identify vegetation, people, buildings, and vehicles. Then, the robot uses a knowledge base to extract more detailed information, which allows it to follow its orders. The command “Go behind the farthest truck on the left” prompts the robot to discern “behind” and “left,” which depends on where the speaker is “standing, facing, and pointing,” stated project leader Stuart Young. 

If the robot is asked with ambiguous questions like “go behind the building,” it will respond with “You mean the building on the right?” Senior ARl roboticist Ethan Stump noted the robot can create maps, mark labels on the maps, comprehend and execute simple commands, and ask for clarification. He said, “We have integrated basic forms of all of the pieces needed to enable acting as a teammate.”

However, the Army’s robot is too slow for practical use. Additionally, it needs to be more resilient. Besides, robots in the military have to be “reliable in life-and-death situations.” Presently, AI systems and robotics systems are “brittle and prone to misunderstanding." “So if we put them in the battlefield, I sure hope we don’t give them any destructive capabilities," said Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.