Armed robots have been making their way from science fiction to mainstream combat at an aggressive pace. The U.S. military is trying to be cautious about the whole thing (too cautious for some and not cautious enough for others), but most people would probably acknowledge that increased reliance on unmanned systems is, for better or worse, an inevitability. This is because robots offer many advantages in conflict zones, the first and foremost being that sending a robot into a dangerous situation often means that a human doesn’t have to go into that same situation.
These advantages aren’t realized solely by the U.S. military. They’re not realized solely by governments in general, either. Robots have been getting cheaper and more accessible, and people with an interest in robotics have for years been able build their own systems to take over work that’s dull, dirty, or dangerous. It should be no surprise, then, that rebels in Libya have started cobbling together their own armed robots out of Power Wheels toys, video cameras, radios, and machine guns:
So what does this mean for the present and future of military robotics? First, it's a vivid illustration of the potential implications of a rapidly descending barrier to entry for this kind of technology. Anyone can (on principle, at least) build a robot, and given the need or the motivation, anyone can put a gun on one, too. Second, the fact that anyone can build something like this is an equally vivid illustration that despite whatever qualms we may have about military robotics, it’s not only going to happen, it’s happening already. Whatever the ethical implications may be, this is becoming the new reality faster than we might like, and it’s something that we’re going to have to prepare for.