Killer Robots Cast Long Shadows Over Academe

May 13, 2017
By Calvin Pollak

Carnegie Mellon University is the most prestigious higher education institution in the western half of Pennsylvania, with computer science and engineering departments that rank at or near the top of national and international lists every year. It boasts a sunny, green campus bordering the affluent Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. Among most Pittsburghers, CMU is associated with intelligence, status, and culture.

But there is another, darker side to Carnegie Mellon that both outsiders and insiders rarely discuss: the university’s crucial role in the global, US-led military-industrial complex. Most notably, researchers at CMU’s Robotics Institute (RI) conduct numerous studies sponsored or sub-contracted by the US military’s Army Research Laboratory, Office of Naval Research, and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), as well as private defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

In 2008, for instance, the RI’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC, located on 40th Street in Lawrenceville) developed Black Knight, an “unmanned” ground combat vehicle, for the UK-based contractor BAE Systems. (In 2014, this same BAE Systems supplied 72 fighter jets to the human rights-­abusing monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which were subsequently used to “bomb Red Cross and MSF hospitals” in Yemen, according to The Independent.) The NREC’s white paper on Black Knight praises the robot as “a piece of technology that can help the Army win battles.” Operators direct Black Knight using a controller similar to that of an Xbox or PlayStation.

Before Black Knight, there was Gladiator, another robotic tank developed by the NREC, this time for the Office of Naval Research in 2005. NREC’s Steve DiAntonio characterized Gladiator as “a tactical robot, one that would actually go in front of infantry, Marine infantry.” Gladiator is equipped with machine guns and smoke grenade launchers.

More recently, Professor Maxim Likhachev and other RI roboticists have been working on “persistent surveillance mission requirements” involving unmanned aircraft, a.k.a. drones. Likhachev co-authored a paper on this Office of Naval Research-funded project in January, describing its goal as making it easier for large fleets of robotic planes to constantly spy on targets.

What makes all of these projects unethical is that they allow officials, policymakers, and US citizens to increasingly dissociate themselves, and their senses of right and wrong, from the death and destruction necessarily wrought by war. In this way, they contribute to pervasive cultural dynamics in the US that make it stiflingly difficult to build a mass movement for peace.

But CMU is not only a hotbed for military-industrial complex research—it is also a key center for recruitment. At annual job fairs, the same defense contractors that pay CMU researchers to build weapons offer students sweet employment packages. Intelligence agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) openly advertise job openings to students. And various branches of the military seek recruits, often offering misleading accounts of the agreements students will sign, benefits they will receive, risks involved with military service, and realities of what they will be required to do. By sanctioning industry and military recruitment, the university feeds technicians and soldiers into ongoing wars in the Middle East and other regions.

For all of these reasons and more, it is critical for members of the Pittsburgh community, especially people at CMU, to engage in anti-war activism targeting the university. Back in 2007, students Kristen Lukiewski and Kelly Cahill wrote an editorial for CMU’s The Tartan newspaper entitled “Killer Robots Pose Moral and Branding Issues for University.” As they wrote then: “for as much as the Gladiator will destroy lives, there are ways to redirect our learning and research towards things that will enhance lives instead.” Over ten years later, this is still absolutely true. But the university has shown that it won’t change until more people stand up and demand that it does.

I know that I’m likely to make my life as a student and instructor at Carnegie Mellon more difficult, and more stressful, by challenging members of the campus community to consider the stakes of these issues. However, such stress is nothing compared to the constant fear of bombings and invasions which people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine and elsewhere have been experiencing for years and decades—thanks, not just to my own government, but to my own university as well.

Above all, CMU must be made to confront the brutal irony of its motto—the Andrew Carnegie quote “my heart is in the work.” We must ask: when your work has such terrible consequences for the world, what does this motto reveal about your heart?

Calvin Pollak is a PhD student in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University. He teaches first-year writing & professional writing.

1 Comment

  1. A thanks to Calvin for writing this and TMC’s New People for getting it to me. I spent 2 years at CMU when it was still called “Carnegie Tech” at a time we youngsters were expected to help the USA catch up with the Russians who had launched Sputnik. How far and how low CMU has come since then. My prayers and solidarity are with insiders such as Calvin who “see something and say something.
    Fr. Bernard Survil, Greensburg, PA

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