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What would D-Day look with robots?

What would D-Day look like with robots and what AI would be needed? Robot team mates rely on common ground, defly illustrated by Tideline, the Hugo award winning scifi short story by Elizabeth Bear.

See/listen to the podcast version here.

Saving Private Ryan is such a brilliant film showing us the scale of combat as well as the personal impact, both at the time and decade later. In scifi movies the battles are generally between a couple of robots, one good, one bad. In real life tactical military robots are more like specialized tools- the small drone to see over the next hill, the throwable robot to get a view of inside of a building, bomb squad robots for disposing of IEDs, underwater robots looking for mines, or tanks and personnel carriers that can drive themselves and anticipate ambushes.

 In real life we aren’t seeing robot armies but rather robots as extensions of the soldier allowing them to sense and act from a safe distance. 

At first blush, that doesn’t sound like the robots need much intelligence, that the intelligence is with the soldier. But there is a lot of subtle intelligence required for humans and robots to work together. 

Remember the old adage: if it is easy for a human, it is hard for computer? It is easy for us to form teams and work with other people and to quickly pick up what others are trying to do and what their strengths and limitations are, and make it work. 

That type of intelligence turns out to be very, very hard. A key component is common ground, that the robot and human have a common backdrop of knowledge- knowledge about how things work and knowledge about what others might want to be doing as well as context. 

The standard example is that it is pretty easy to ask your significant other “get me some coffee” as they head out the door to run errands and be reasonably sure that they will make an extra stop and come back with the pecan-flavored k-cups that you love. But a robot might interpret that as a command to pour a cup of coffee and bring over a mug. Sure, a robot may have learned your preference for pecan-flavored coffee, might somewhere have access to data that you are running low of supplies, or that since it is departing on errands to stores the request is at the store scale but that’s a whole lot of connections and inference to be made. We “just know” what is meant— and that’s hard. 

And, of course, that’s what you’d like in a robot working for a soldier- the soldier can just say a request or be doing something and the robot knows what is meant. No long sentences, no having to worry about how you phrased the request. It knows what you really mean— and there is more to that type of intelligence than chatGPT. There is a classic paper on this: Klein, Woods, Bradshaw, and Hoffman called Ten Challenges for Making Automation a "Team Player" in Joint Human-Agent Activity

If you have time to read one robot short story  for  the D-Day anniversary in remembrance all the Americans who have sacrificed their lives for our country, make it Elizabeth Bear’s scifi classic Tideline.   It is a perfect illustration of the role of common ground and the 10 challenges. 

In Tideline, a Marine Corps robot soldier trapped on a beach crafts Cornell box-like memorials to her fallen human teammates.  One of the best sci-fi short stories of all times (it won the 2008 @Hugo and I dare you not to cry when you read it), it lyrically captures Chalcedony’s point of view while never telling us who started the war, who the enemy is (or was),  who won, or size of weapons— it doesn’t matter, this isn’t military sci-fi. It does not matter the tides will eventually destroy Chalcedony. What does matter is that she remembers her dead band of brothers and has a rich common ground of what it means to be human and to be civilized. And that she passes that on to the orphaned child she finds. 

That’s the type of intelligence that we should be striving for, both for robots and for us humans. And it’s hard!

Useful links:

Some other good stories and books about robot soliders:


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