Gladiator research raises awareness of ethical issues

?We turn dollars into knowledge,? said Matthew Mason, director of Carnegie Mellon University?s Robotics Institute. ?I look at [each potential project] as how it advances our goals in robotics.?
In February, the Institute accepted a contract to develop Gladiator, a robotic remote-control ground vehicle which has the potential to save the lives of soldiers dealing with deadly situations. According to researchers, the vehicle can spot enemies from hundreds of yards and see in ways people can?t. The contract is worth $26.4 million and would support the research of four or five graduate students. What sets this project apart from others, however, is its potential to use ?direct fire capability to neutralize threats.?
Although CMU is not directly developing any of Gladiator?s offensive capabilities, the robot and others like it raise new questions as to where the line should be drawn for collegiate military research. There are many who claim they deserve a hand in drawing the line, and who exactly does the drawing in academia is unclear. But one thing is sure: students will feel the consequences.
Students are at the center of the issue. They worry about choosing theses, conducting research, and finally, getting jobs. Whether they are denied research opportunities because of their citizenship status, are included in military projects willingly, or avoid them out of personal choice, the presence of military research is a windfall for some and a blight for others.
Students don?t study in a vacuum. The choices of administrators and project managers affect them profoundly. Dimitrios Apostolopoulos, the Robotics Institute scientist in charge of Gladiator, sees his work as an opportunity to serve his country and provide raw material for graduate degrees.
?We should be helping to improve the national security of the United States. [It is] almost a civic duty,? said Apostolopoulos in a telephone interview. ?Personally, there is no difference in my mind between a DARPA program and a NASA program. There are probably thousands of PhDs and masters students who have come out from CMU having worked on [military-funded] projects.?
The debate, though, is far from one-sided.
?What?s it ultimately about? It?s about building weapons,? said David Meieran, a member of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) and former philosophy doctoral student. Meieran is a life-long activist, having spent most of the last two decades campaigning to promote AIDS awareness and gay rights. He?s given up the typical post-college life of a Carnegie Mellon student, living hand-to-mouth and borrowing money from his friends to pay for trips to demonstrations and protests. ?It?s sanitized warfare ... reducing the casualties on the U.S. side makes going to war easier.... The country that goes to war should take the moral issue seriously.?
?That?s a fair argument, in a way, but at the same time, with Gladiator, with a Marine carrying out orders, he?s not making the policy, he?s carrying out orders,? said Apostolopoulos in a separate interview. ?To me, it?s a very worthy mission [to help them]. Of course it?s a tough issue, we all have opinions. You know, war is not a good thing. But we?re not going to say we?re not going to help the person who?s on the front lines.? Apostolopoulos laid down a clear boundary for the kind of research he would be a part of. ?If someone were to ask me to develop a system to develop the accuracy of a weapon, I wouldn?t do it. If someone were to ask me to develop an autonomous navigation system for a mine, I wouldn?t do it.?
With contracts like Gladiator, the conversation on ethics doesn?t stop with the academic in charge. When pressed for details on which moral and ethical issues discussed, Robotics Institute director Matt Mason refused to elaborate beyond saying they had ?discussed all aspects of the project.? Mason added that research done at Carnegie Mellon is ?being done by people who love robotics and publish the work and apply what they learn to other applications.?
Regardless of where the research is done, military research is seen as controversial. For students like Christopher Sequeira, a senior in aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the issue is a fact of scholarly life.
?The military tends to fund things around here,? said Sequeira, who is also since last year a member of MIT Student Pugwash, a campus group dedicated to promoting social responsibility in science and technology. ?I don?t see MIT as a particularly activist type of campus.? He added that it?s not necessarily an apathetic environment, but students usually go about their day without being confronted with political messages. He recalled an annual contest sponsored by MIT?s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies in which materials science students submitted designs for body armor. Two years ago ?there was some outcry,? said Sequeira, about the ethics and applications of the research.
Classified research offers students the opportunity to travel in the professional world. But the classified work done at places like MIT and at high-tech government jobs often carries restrictions involving circumstances beyond the students? control. Many graduate students in MIT?s aerospace department aren?t from the U.S., said Sequeira. ?At a recent job fair, Boeing said it?s better to be a citizen because it opens up a whole lot of projects for you. I would definitely say that most of the opportunities and cutting edge research is done by the military. So if you?re not a citizen, your options are pretty limited. Other areas [outside of aerospace] have more opportunities.?
Gladiator won?t be as selective. Only students who are permanent residents of the U.S. will be permitted to work on the project, according to Apostolopoulos. According to the CMU 2005 Fact Book, 43 percent of robotics students at the School of Computer Science are non-resident aliens or international students and, as a result, are not able to be involved in projects like Gladiator.
On March 19, the day before the march to mark the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, protesters chalked ?WAR MACHINE? across 20 feet of concrete in front of Warner Hall along with a giant arrow pointing to the doors of Carnegie Mellon?s administration building. Students will have to decide for themselves whether they pay any attention to this label.
At MIT, Sequeira will be doing the same for his own school. ?If I come back for grad studies, I?ll have to think about funding myself, where my funding is going to come from, and where my research goes after the fact.?