High-tech robots called packbots  will be unleashed during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil to help boost security and examine suspicious objects . The Brazilian government purportedly spent US$7.2 million to buy 30 military-grade robots from the designer iRobot that will police the stadiums throughout Brazil’s 12 host cities during soccer matches .
A PackBot is a hunk of metal with an extendable arm, tactile claw, jam-packed onboard sensors, a computer with overheat protection, nine high-resolution cameras and lasers, and two-way audio . But is it overkill to implement wartime robots at a sporting event?
Sports' History of Violence
On 30 April 1993, then-world number one tennis sensation Monica Seles was stabbed in the back while playing a quarter final match at Hamburg’s Rothenbaum . She was only 19 years old. That incident changed not only the course of women’s tennis but also the face of security in sports .
Of course, we can also point to the Munich massacre of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Summer Olympics in West Germany in rethinking approaches to the safety of high-profile athletes.
It was Seles’ plight, however, that brought attention to the ever-increasing problem of public figure security. Her stabbing in Hamburg had nothing to do with terrorism but rather was due to her perpetrator’s fixation on Seles’ arch rival Steffi Graf. Player safety was going to become an even bigger business.
It was floated that the Rothenbaum tournament organizers had spent A$650,000 on security, and that Seles herself had employed security guards to protect her at all of her tournament appearances. So what went wrong?
The Human Factor
Not only are people unpredictable but intervention is almost impossible if one cannot anticipate the actions of another. On 13 November 1982, one of Australia’s great wicket takers, Terry Alderman, made a costly mistake when he took security matters into his own hands . The West Australian was disabled for more than a year with a shoulder injury he sustained after attempting to tackle an English-supporting ground invader at the WACA Ground in Perth. Such has become the concern over security that spectators can no longer spill onto the grounds after the final siren to get close to their heroes.
Pitch invasions had long been a tradition of the Australian Football League, and, at the end of matches, supporters could run onto the field to celebrate the game and play kickto-kick with their family and friends. But in recent years, stricter controls have been introduced, and, finally, rushing the field was banned to the great disappointment of fans.
The Nonhuman Factor
What makes PackBots attractive for civilian security situations such as large-scale sporting tournaments? PackBots made their debut in Afghanistan as far back as 2002. During the war on terror, these uninhabited systems had several tasks:
▼ clear bunkers
▼ search caves
▼ enter collapsed buildings in search of life
▼ cross minefields
▼ conduct surveillance .
This began a trend of development subsequently in Iraq and other U.S. conflicts, and, recently, they went where no human would want to go, the Fukushima nuclear facility in March 2011 after the devastation of the Japanese tsunami. There are certainly positive uses for these uninhabited systems, which few would argue against.
PackBots can move faster than 14 km/h, rotate 360°, traverse rugged terrain, climb up 60% grades, and even swim in water, as they are able to cope with being submerged up to 2 m. They can even be remotely operated with hardly any lag using a joystick .
iRobot’s bots are not recent entries into the commercial market. Many of us were introduced to the domestication of the robot by the company’s Roomba household cleaning machine .
The use of electronics in sports is also not new. HawkEye officiates whether the ball was in or out of the sidelines , FoxCopter hovers above spectators at cricket matches to give us up-close personal shots of players, and the third umpire adjudicates challenges .
But now the PackBots are coming: ostensibly precise, they are not supposed to malfunction or act against the controller’s wishes (or those instructions that they have been programmed with), and they cannot be easily destroyed. In the not-sodistant future, they could use their cameras to observe you, their chemical sensors to breathalyze you, their extended arm to trap you, and their claw to handcuff you.
Have we seriously considered some of the more obvious implications? First, there is the robot warrior at war, then the PackBot at the soccer game, and now the homebot, which we invite into our very households. We are reminded of a famous headline in The New York Post in 1946 in reference to the world’s first automated computer, “It Won’t Mind the Baby—Yet; But Little Else Stops ‘ENIAC’” . The trouble is that, while we are resting our feet in front of our screens, trying to perfect those remote gaming-like controls, or designing killing machines with cross-over household capabilities, we might snooze at the wheel to the real task at hand of creating a more equitable world while still remaining the primary stakeholders in the technological society . The danger is to be caught out, like Seles, by the knife wielding attacker who rushes up from behind. How long will it be before we give up absolute control to these autonomous objects?
How long before we give them additional powers? Will we look forward to societal control on the streets as they lurk waiting for someone to break the law to sustain peace and justice? Will these fearless warriors be deployed on the street to clean up alcoholism, drug abuse, and even the homeless? How long will it be before these PackBots make a run for their own pitch invasion, replacing our mortal athletes altogether because they are able to do mean feats and withstand extreme physical conditions better than those of humans? But what consequence will these anthropomorphic yet mechanized abilities have to being human?
Will being human lack its luster? Is this the beginning of the normalization process that says that man and machine must coexist side by side? Let us in our own time reflect on the impenetrability of Asimov’s three laws of robotics . We are giving over control to machine entities or, better still, objects and units outside of ourselves.
In fact, many argue that we have already lost great chunks of our autonomy without the expected commensurate increase in security. Will the natural instincts and creative inputs of human beings become increasingly redundant in a world where the tin man has the final say?
This article has been adapted from the article titled: “War Robots and the 2014 World Cup—Defenders Off the Field” published in The Conversation on 4 March 2014: https://theconversation.com/ war-robots-and-the-2014-world-cup-defenders-off-thefield-23770.
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Citation: Katina Michael and MG Michael, "The Packbots Are Coming: Boosting security at the 2014 FIFA World Cup", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 2014, pp. 59 - 61. DOI: 10.1109/MCE.2014.2317914