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Pentagon wants robot surrogates for soldiers

In the film "Avatar," Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) teaches the Na'vi language to Jake (Sam Worthington), a "dreamwalker" who is mind-linked to a human controller.

In yet another sign that science fiction and reality are on a collision course, the military's futuristic research arm wants to invest $7 million in a project to create robotic partners for its soldiers, according to DARPA's $2.8 billion budget for 2013.

DARPA watchers see an immediate link to, and inspiration from, the blockbuster movie "Avatar," in which humans plugged into a brain interface to control genetically enhanced human-alien hybrids.

The goal of the so-called "Avatar Project," reports Wired's Danger Room, is to "develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the solder's surrogate."

Speculation over what the military is actually after in the program is teed off from other robotic research programs funded by DARPA. 

IEEE's Automation blog finds clues in the agency's work with Boston Dynamic's Petman, a bi-pedal robot designed to test chemical-protection clothing, which could serve as the surrogate. 

"We have absolutely no evidence to suggest Petman is anything more than a chemical-protection clothing tester," IEEE's Evan Ackerman writes, "except for the fact that just testing suits seems like a slightly ridiculous use for a freakin' super advanced bipedal humanoid soldier robot."

Another possibility raised by Wired's Danger Room is the Alphadog, also built by Boston Dynamics.

Earlier this month, DARPA released a video of the robodog, which is capable of hauling a soldier's gear and following the soldier using "eyes" — sensors that can distinguish between trees, rocks, terrain obstacles and people.

"It sounds like the agency's after an even more sophisticated robot-soldier synergy," Wired notes, pointing to earlier research on mind-controlled robots

"Granted, that research was performed on monkeys. But it does raise the tantalizing prospect that soldiers might one day meld minds with their very own robotic alter egos."

Whoa. For more detail, check out Danger Room's coverage of the DARPA budget.

— Via Danger Room and IEEE

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

 

 

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