Make Robots Not War

Some Scientists Refuse to Get Paid for Killer Ideas

"ONR has for a long time supported this kind of research," Potter says, "and Sandia National Laboratory offered me money." The military's reach is wide: Sandia is a Department of Energy facility, but the bulk of its work concerns nuclear weapons and military technology. Potter recalls of his contact with Sandia officials: "They said, 'Here's some thousands of dollars because we think what you're doing is cool.' I said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' And I get told of grants that would match my work, but I check them out and say, 'No, sorry, it's DARPA.' "

Potter chooses instead to work with funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other foundations and civilian groups. He says much of his thinking was shaped by his experiences with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, best known currently for its feel-good, and scientifically important, robotic probes en route to Mars and Saturn.

"I came out of Caltech, which runs the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and my father spent his life at JPL. A lot of my attitude comes from that experience—seeing all of their cloak and dagger stuff going on there," Potter says. "Like one thing my dad worked on was side-looking radar. At the time they said, 'We're going to use this to map Venus,' which they did. And now it's used to steer cruise missiles."

illustration: Matthew Martin


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And how exactly might Potter's own work be used in a weapons system? "I don't want to answer that question—and discourage you from trying to guess because that is helping the enemy, in my opinion," he fumes. "I will hold you personally responsible for the consequences if you do."

Few scientists share Potter's passion and uncompromising stance. When asked if colleagues in his field refuse military money, Nobel laureate for medicine Richard Roberts says, "No one immediately comes to mind. On the rumor mill you'll hear about these things, but I don't know of any specific instances. Most people in the biological sciences, if they come across polluted money, would probably try to use it anyway—in some way try to make themselves feel good about using Department of Defense money."

Says physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg, "A lot of people did it [refused military money] 30 years ago during the Vietnam War, but I don't know of anyone doing that today."

Perhaps the rarity of Potter's stance indicates a general support for Bush policies, but it also might speak to the complete saturation of science by military money, along with a little cynicism. Even the much ridiculed Star Wars program didn't turn scientists into the kind of conscientious objector that Potter has become. Physicist Peter Zimmerman, a consultant on science issues for Senate Democrats (according to Physics Today), opposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile shield favored by Republicans. But he says, "I always advised friends to take the SDI money and do some useful physics with it instead of seeing it wasted."

Certainly there are laws and codes prohibiting scientists from developing biological weapons, and just recently four activist groups circulated a pledge at an AAAS meeting in San Francisco asking that researchers refrain from "the design, development, testing, production, maintenance, targeting, or use" of weapons of mass destruction, or any research that might be used by others toward those ends.

But some of the most exciting emerging technologies, drawing both new talent and increased military funding, aren't so clearly offensive. There are vast areas of gray, much like what Potter's father found himself in.

Emily Hamner is a recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate who now works as a full-time research assistant on the Personal Rover Project, making low-cost autonomous robots at the Robotics Institute there. Her boss is Nourbakhsh, but she says, "I didn't join Illah's lab specifically for its lack of military funding, but I'm glad that I'm not working on a 'killer robot.'

"If I was trying to choose whether or not to accept a job sponsored by the military I think I would have to base that decision on the specifics of the project. If I felt the benefits of the technology developed would outweigh the potential harm, I might work on the project. If I was going to be training a shooting robot to recognize human targets, for example, I don't think I would take the job. I enjoy robotics, but if the only way to make enough money in robotics was to work on such a project, I would rather find a job in a different area of computer science."

But final uses of such basic science are never all that clear. As Tether himself cooed, "One of the most exciting things about DARPA is our work on technologies whose exact military uses are not clear, but their usefulness is. This is part of what makes being the DARPA director such a fun job."

Part of the reason University of Texas at Austin computer scientist Benjamin Kuipers stopped taking military financing is that he's seen colleagues wind up in places they'd never imagined themselves.

"DARPA and ONR and other DOD agencies support quite a lot of research that I think is valuable and virtuous," he says. "However, there is a slippery slope that I have seen in the careers of a number of colleagues. You start work on a project that is completely fine. Then when renewal time comes, and you have students depending on you for support, your program officer says that they can continue to fund the same work, but now you need to phrase the proposal using an example in a military setting. Same research, but just use different language to talk about it. OK. Then when the time comes for the next renewal, the pure research money is running a bit low, but they can still support your lab if you can work on some applications that are really needed by the military application. OK. . . . Then for the next round, you need to make regular visits to the military commanders, convincing them that your innovation will really help them in the field. And so on. By the end of a decade or two, you have become a different person from the one you were previously. You look back on your younger self, shake your head, and think, 'How naive.' "

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