Sunday, May 06, 2007

Somewhere, Keith Laumer is smiling

From today's Washington Post:
The most effective way to find and destroy a land mine is to step on it.

This has bad results, of course, if you're a human. But not so much if you're a robot and have as many legs as a centipede sticking out from your body. That's why Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built something like that. At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.

Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.

The human in command of the exercise, however—an Army colonel—blew a fuse.

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

From Keith Laumer's "Field Test," first published in the March 1976 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact:
"All right, Unit DNE of the line. Why did you do it? This is your Commander, Unit DNE. Report! Why did you do it? Now, you knew your position was hopeless, didn't you? That you'd be destroyed if you held your ground, to say nothing of advancing. Surely you were able to compute that. You were lucky to have the change to prove yourself."

For a minute I thought old Denny was too far gone to answer. There was just a kind of groan come out of the amplifier. Then it firmed up. General Bates had his hand cupped behind his ear, but Denny spoke right up.

"Yes, sir."

"You knew what was a stake here. It was the ultimate test of your ability to perform correctly under stress, of your suitability as a weapon of war. You knew that. General Margrave and old Priss Grace and the press boys all had their eyes on every move you made. So, instead of using common sense, you waded into that inferno in defiance of all logic—and destroyed yourself. Right?"

"That is correct, sir."

"Then why? In the name of sanity why, instead of backing out and saving yourself, did you charge?

"Wait a minute, Unit DNE. It just dawned on me. I've been underestimating you. You knew, didn't you? Your knowledge of human psychology told you they'd break and run, didn't it?"

"No, sir. On the contrary, I was quite certain that they knew they held every advantage."

"Then that leaves me back where I started. Why? What made you risk everything on a hopeless attack? Why did you do it?"

"For the honor of the regiment."