Integrating robots in disaster areas

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9423779_mThis last weekend was a highlight for 23 teams from around the world that took part in the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency contest. In the center of the contest, that spread over two years with three stages, each rising in difficulty, was the purpose of developing the robotics field and to bring closer the day when robots could replace humans in rescue missions in disaster-stricken areas. The contest was thought of by the heads of DARPA following the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan back in 2011.

The contest final, which took place in California last weekend, included eight tasks designed to simulate as closely as possible the challenges with which robots would have to cope during activities in such areas, including autonomous driving, clearing a path through wreckage, closing valves and climbing up stairs. At the end of two nerve-wrecking days, the announcement came that a Korean team has won first place, receiving the prize of $2million. In second and third place came american teams, for the prize of $1million and $500,000 respectively.

For a while now there has been tension between two main schools on the subject of the technological race and humanity’s fast-paced march towards full automation of robots. On one side, there are those who claim that we must strive for progress and full automation in the robotics field. On the other side there are those who claim that if humanity keeps heading in this direction, it won’t be long before the mechanical student will surpass its human master. This, they say, is even more of a pressing issue when it comes to integrating robots in the battle-field. What will humanity do if robots become fully autonomous and make use of the weapns put in their hands by humans?

The contest in California, however, emphasizes the positive aspects of the issue: a growing use of robots in disaster zones, that pose a serious danger to human lives, will surely save lives. It seems, then, that no good comes without the bad and that man must strive for pregress while keeping in mind that too much autonomy might pose a threat to him someday.