Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: The BS Behind the Rats and Robot Rumors
By Rebecca Frankel Best Defense Canine Correspondent Barking up the Wrong Tree (I): No, Computers Won’t Replace Human Handlers In January, Wired ran a post that got my MWD-lovin’ leash in twist. Word of it ricocheted around the Internet, prompting at least one seriously inaccurate follow-up, and riled up some spicy criticism among MWD handlers. ...
By Rebecca Frankel
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Canine Correspondent
Barking up the Wrong Tree (I): No, Computers Won’t Replace Human Handlers
In January, Wired ran a post that got my MWD-lovin’ leash in twist. Word of it ricocheted around the Internet, prompting at least one seriously inaccurate follow-up, and riled up some spicy criticism among MWD handlers. The post, titled “Army’s Automated Dog Whisperer Will Train Puppies of War,” draws attention to three small-business contracts awarded by the Army to develop a technology called Rugged Automated Training System (RATS).
Certainly news of the RATS — specifically, its goal to produce “a machine that will reliably train small animals to detect explosives … and provide an objective unbiased measurement of the animal’s sensitivity and accuracy” — is fascinating, as is the Army’s interest in pursuing it.
The problem with the Wired post is that it misappropriates language from the unclassified descriptions of these contracts and relates it to canines, wrongly implying (nay, proclaiming with its title), that the eventual success of RATS will transform the way MWDs are trained. The post’s author, reporter Katie Drummond, never qualifies or specifies the canine component in these three contracts or the still-developing U.S. RATS program.
That’s probably because there isn’t one.
“It’s completely a rat program,” said Dr. Micheline Strand, chief of the Army Research Office division funding the RATS research and manager of the program. Dr. Strand, speaking from her North Carolina office this week, told me that even while the Army is interested in exploring the detection capability of rats they “are not meant to replace dogs in any way.”
Rats and mice have piqued the interest of stateside researchers with reports of their successful landmine and explosive detection abilities in Africa, Israel, and more recently, Colombia. Much of the appeal of these rodents is how unlike canines they are — smaller, lighter, and without the emotional connection to their human counterparts. It’s also widely assumed that with the advent of RATS, training these more diminutive mammals would be faster and less expensive, in part because the human role could be minimized with rats. (Minimized, but not eliminated as Drummond surmises in her post.)
But all of the hype around RATS (and rats, respectively) is tentative and the scientific investigation is in the early stages. Even if these RATS contracts produce results that satisfy the Army’s highest expectations, the technology is at minimum two years away from even being produced.
“Right now it’s very, very basic research,” Dr. Strand said. The Army Research Office focuses more on exploratory, long-term research. “It’s looking at ‘Can we do this?'” she explained. When it comes to RATS, “We might say, ‘You know, this didn’t work.'”
The teams currently working on RATS technology are still in Phase I of their research and the details that make each pursuit unique are being kept under wraps. I spoke with a representative from each of the three teams and they all assured me that this technology is not being developed with canines in mind, even if they speculated it would be possible someday. In part, the objective with RATS is simply to determine, through hard data, whether a rat’s capability for scent detection is even on par with that of a dog’s.
To be fair then, we can’t take canines out of the RATS equation entirely. As Dr. Strand put it, “Dogs are a proof of concept that an animal system is actually very, very good at finding smells. Dogs show it can be done.”
And MWDs — when matched with their handlers — do it better than anything else the military has yet conceived of in the way of IED detection. Even if RATS is successful and even if years from now, the Army finds a way to apply it to canines — something I have a difficult time envisioning — I still don’t believe it could ever replace, let alone surpass the effectiveness of the handler-canine working bond.
William Gressick, the principal investigator on RATS working for Barron Associates, Inc. in Charlottesville, VA spoke with full confidence about the work he was doing with rats, but acknowledged the integral role the dog-handler bond plays in MWD training. “It seems very unlikely to me that, using a computer, you could reliably train a dog to achieve the performance that a handler does. We can’t speculate on what the future will hold, but right now I can’t see that.”
A final note: This post is the first in a series devoted to upending the more egregious misperceptions currently circulating about MWDs. If you have a question or know of a related issue that might be addressed (or debunked) here, let us know. I’ll do my best to provide answers and bring in other experts in the field whenever possible. (The series title comes courtesy of the talented Mr. Ricks.)
Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently working on a book about military working dogs.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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