Don’t Worry, the Biomass-Eating Robot Will be Vegetarian

by Kevin Jon Heller

Ken is going to be so jealous that I blogged about this story first!  Apparently, there is concern that a new robot capable of ingesting and extracting biomass from the environment will become some kind of robot zombie feasting on (yummy?) human flesh.  The companies behind the robot, however, want us to know that nothing could be further from the truth:

In response to rumors circulating the internet on sites such as FoxNews.com, FastCompany.com and CNET News about a “flesh eating” robot project, Cyclone Power Technologies Inc. (Pink Sheets:CYPW) and Robotic Technology Inc. (RTI) would like to set the record straight: This robot is strictly vegetarian.

On July 7, Cyclone announced that it had completed the first stage of development for a beta biomass engine system used to power RTI’s Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR™), a Phase II SBIR project sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Defense Sciences Office. RTI’s EATR is an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling.

RTI’s patent pending robotic system will be able to find, ingest and extract energy from biomass in the environment. Despite the far-reaching reports that this includes “human bodies,” the public can be assured that the engine Cyclone has developed to power the EATR runs on fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings and wood chips – small, plant-based items for which RTI’s robotic technology is designed to forage. Desecration of the dead is a war crime under Article 15 of the Geneva Conventions, and is certainly not something sanctioned by DARPA, Cyclone or RTI.

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO. “We are focused on demonstrating that our engines can create usable, green power from plentiful, renewable plant matter. The commercial applications alone for this earth-friendly energy solution are enormous.” (emphasis in the original)

I’m going out on a limb — a non-human one, of course — and claiming that this is the first time Article 15 has ever been mentioned in a press release about robots.

Bonus IHL info: cannibalism has been prosecuted as a war crime on a number of occasions.  In 1946, for example, a US Military Commission sitting in the Marianas Islands convicted a Lt.General in the Japanese Army of “preventing an honorable burial due to the consumption of parts of the bodies of prisoners of war by the accused during a special meal in the officers’ mess.”  The General was sentenced to death and executed.  No word on whether he was then eaten.

Hat-Tip: Mark Weidermeier at The Faculty Lounge.

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/07/30/dont-worry-the-biomass-eating-robot-will-be-vegetarian/

6 Responses

  1. THis is so cool!  I guess you know the old robotics joke … Don’t anthropomorphize the robots – they hate that.  ({Probably slightly better in the original Japanese.)

  2. Here is a NYT piece on warbots and the Geneva Convention, and a more specific piece from the New Scientist, and the issue is discussed at length in this TED talk, and finally the Navy commissioned this detailed report. However, none of the above are press releases nor as far as I can tell mention Art 15 specifically so I think you still win ;)

    They all make the reasonable enough claim that robots should be less susceptible to at least the ‘pedestrian’ crimes of war since they don’t get upset when their colleagues die or they are in combat for six days straight, or indeed ever.

    Some of them (the TED guy in particular) make the slightly more ambitous claim that robots could be programmed with quite sophisticated algorithms for applying the rules of jus in bello, including the Geneva Conventions and including making an assessment of proportionality (ie there are three people 80% likely to be civilians, but this bridge is crucial).

  3. Actually cannibalism was NOT prosecuted as a war crime in the case mentioned — the reason that the defendant was charged with “denial of a proper burial” was because that offense was recognized under the law of war while cannabilism was not. 

    Oh, for the good old days when military commissions actually took the law seriously and limited themselves to charges supported by the law of war.  Today, by contrast, we see charges of conspiracy, providing material support to terrorism, etc. which may be federal offenses but have no grounding in the law of war and are not lawful bases for military commission jurisdiction over enemy fighters. 

  4. I’m guessing the US didn’t make any reservations regarding Art. 15?  . . . Or, did it? 

  5. Dave,

    I didn’t mean it literally… You are, of course, correct: the precise charge was a violation of Article 15 via cannibalism.

  6. Hmm… this new technology invites a curious fusion of robot and zombie movies, that much is certain.  Hopefully, “2101: A Robozombie Odyssey”  should be in the works. 

    Wait, if the robot isn’t human, it’s not really cannibalism, is it?  I suppose it would still be desecration of a corpse.

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