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When 'I Robot' becomes 'We Robot'

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It sounds like classic sci-fi: Robots, linked by a common network, roam the land. When one unit discovers something, they all know it instantly. They use artificial intelligence to carry out their mission.

Soon, such marching orders will be real, carried out by robot groups known as "swarms" or "hives." For example:

• Last month, South Korea's Defense Ministry announced that it was planning to spend up to $1.9 billion to deploy robots along its border with North Korea. The robots would be used mainly for surveillance, although some could be armed. The effort might allow South Korea to remove some of its troops from along the 150-mile-long demilitarized zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, a defense ministry representative told the Associated Press.

• iRobot, a Burlington, Mass., company that makes military robots along with its popular domestic robot, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, operates perhaps the largest robot swarm in the world. About 100 experimental units operate as a team and have taught at least one important lesson: Real-life robots need to be reminded to recharge themselves. That's led to just such a feature on the Roomba, which now returns to its charging base when its battery fades.

• The United States Army is developing a Future Combat System (FCS) that includes a close network of troops and ground and aerial unmanned robots. The robots would communicate with one another and coordinate their activities based on the mission assigned to them.

"We're very interested" in hive or "swarm" technology, said Dennis Muilenburg, FCS program manager at Boeing, which is being paid $21 billion by the Army to oversee hundreds of contractors working on the FCS program.


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