Integrating Humans and Machines

The military holds an enduring interest in robotic capability, and teaming these early robots with humans. From the use of remote controlled boats by the Germans in the First World War, unmanned, tracked Goliath robots filled with explosives used in World War Two, through to contemporary EOD robots and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, military organizations have long sought to leverage robotic capability. At the highpoint of the Iraq War in 2006, the U.S. military fielded over 8000 robots in theater.

This article is the second of three that examines three aspects of human-machine teaming. In the first, I examined the rationale for human-machine teaming through ‘seven propositions’. This article examines key elements military organizations might adopt in a closer integration of humans and machines. It is proposed there are three areas upon which might be constructed a competitive strategy for future operations. The three areas provide background information, analysis and the possible applications of human-machine teams. 

Area I: Human-Robot Teaming. In his 2009 book, Wired for War, Peter Singer examined the future of warfare through the lens of robots becoming a pervasive element of military operations. This is not a new vision. Science fictions writers have been writing about robots and warfare for nearly a century. Indeed, ‘human automata’ have been described and constructed for over 500 years. But it was only in 1921 that the Czech writer Karen Capek coined the term ‘Robot’ in a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Since that time, scientists, writers and industrialists have built and imagined robots for the broadest range of functions. From the construction of motor vehicles on assembly lines, to more sophisticated models undertaking functions on the International Space Station, early generation robots have assumed multiple functions that are either cheaper or safer than using humans.

As recent future trends documents have found, remote and automated systems (armed and unarmed), will proliferate over the next 20 years. As these become cheaper and easier to produce, technologically advanced systems are likely to be used by a larger number developing states and non-state actors. As they become capable of more functions, more reliable and trusted by humans, their employment in all military services is likely to become widespread.

Enterprise and Battlefield Applications. Human-robot teams will have broad application across military organizations. In an enterprise approach, human-robot combinations would be useful in military training establishments to provide consistent training outcomes, and offer the test-bed for best practices in developing human-robot tasking relationships. In day to day logistics, robots are likely to have high utility in performing tasks that Max Boot in War Made New classified as ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous,’ such as vehicle maintenance and repair, and basic movement tasks.

Courtesy: U.S. Army

Courtesy: U.S. Army

On operations, the use of human-robot teams offers a solution to one of the most enduring challenges for small militaries – the building of mass. Potentially, each person might control a fleet of ground and air systems, providing for an exponential increase in the capability of a deployed force. At the same time, it provides the chance to reassess how many people are required in combat and combat support units to generate the kind of effects that are expected of contemporary military organizations. This has the potential to significantly reduce the numbers of personnel in units. In turn, it may free up people for redeployment into areas where the art of war demands humans – human intelligence (or HUMINT collection), intelligence analysis, training and education, planning, and most importantly, command and leadership.

Area II: Human-AI Teaming. In 1899, diplomats from the world’s leading military powers convened in The Hague for a peace conference. One of the outcomes of the conference was a five-year moratorium on offensive military uses of aircraft. Though the intention was to later make the ban permanent, it was abandoned at the second Hague conference of 1907 once countries saw the irresistible potential of aerial warfare. Aerospace technology eventually became nearly synonymous with military power. A recent Belfer Center study found that it is highly likely applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will ultimately travel a similar path. Just as businesses are choosing machine learning because competitively they have no choice, so too will militaries and intelligence agencies feel the competitive pressure to expand the use of military AI applications.

Partially autonomous and intelligent systems have been used by military organizations since at least the Second World War. However, advances in machine learning and AI represent a turning point in the use of automation in warfare. Like robots, this is a field in which rapid advances over the next decade will provide the opportunity for military organizations to re-re-think how they conduct the planning, information gathering and analysis, logistics and strategy development in War.

The key driver for the use of AI in warfare is the convergence of large numbers of advanced sensors, extensive communication links and a flow of information that continues to grow. As the quantity of information continues to increase, the capacity of humans to deal with it is not increasing in a commensurate manner. The slowest element in decision-making is becoming the human decision maker. In the competitive environment of war, the race truly does go to the swift.

The key driver for the use of AI in warfare is the convergence of large numbers of advanced sensors, extensive communication links and a flow of information that continues to grow...

Automated systems featuring AI appear to offer the potential to provide some relief in this process. By teaming human decision makers with AI that can collate and present meaningful information, military leaders may be able to establish decision superiority over an adversary – assuming that adversary is not using similar systems. But even if there is a suitable marriage of humans and AI, the speed at which AI is developing means that more and more functions will move beyond human comprehension and may have to be delegated to autonomous systems out of necessity.

Enterprise and Battlefield Applications. Just as human-robot teams will have broad application in military organizations, so too will human-AI teams. In an enterprise approach, human-AI combinations would be useful in providing support to strategic analysis and decision-making. The recent establishment of an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team by the US Deputy Secretary of Defense is a recognition of this. But a range of other strategic functions, including talent management, logistics and personnel administration may also be significantly improved through the development of human-AI teams.

Air Force Illustration by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes

Air Force Illustration by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes

On operations, the provision of highly sophisticated decision support using big data analysis has potential to support tired planners in headquarters at different levels. It also offers the potential to automate functions such as routine resupply, network management and movement schedules. Importantly, AI embedded in autonomous and semi-autonomous systems offer the chance for rapid responses to the actions of an adversary.

Ultimately, the speeds at which autonomous systems operate force humans to perform further up the chain of command. As Adams (2001) notes, tactical warfare may become the business of machines and not appropriate for people at all. But if war’s nature is enduring, humans – albeit teamed with advanced AI - will still play a role in policy, strategy, and campaigning. 

Area III: Human Augmentation. This area is the ultimate expression of the human-machine revolution, and may potentially be the most challenging dimension. It is an extension of centuries of human endeavor where people sought to become faster, stronger and smarter through the use of tools and machines. While we might look back as far as cavemen using basic tools, it is more useful to look at contemporary human augmentation efforts before projecting forward into the future.

[Human augmentation] is an extension of centuries of human endeavor where people sought to become faster, stronger and smarter through the use of tools and machines.

The U.S. military has been a major investor in this field, leading a variety of research projects that seek to optimize human fighting capacities. DARPA’s Accelerated Learning program, for example, seeks to apply the best practices of learning as demonstrated by neuroscience and statistical modeling. There is a range of different endeavors by civil and military institutions to augment the physical and cognitive abilities of humans. Current human augmentation could be broken into two categories of augmentation: mechanical, and implantable.

Mechanical Augmentation. Humans have used simple mechanical augmentation such as artificial limbs, for centuries. However, this field has received revived attention over the past 18 years with a large number of amputees returning from military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has driven advances in the development of increasingly sophisticated artificial limbs. Concurrently, this has re-energized interest in more complex mechanical augmentation with systems such as external exoskeletons.


Multiple research organizations are developing exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance. For military use, three examples include Lockheed Martin’s HULC, Raytheon’s XOS, and the University of California Berkeley’s BLEEX. These external exoskeletons, being researched for civil and military applications, are likely to offer a range of functions for deployed forces, but also more broadly across the institutional army. The U.S. Army has a long interest in these systems, has funded multiple explorations of their capabilities, and is likely to have useful lessons for Army force design and our potential human augmentation programs the future.

Implantable Augmentation. Implantables – small devices that humans can have implanted in their bodies - are already available for multiple functions. Cochlear implants have been available for over a decade to return hearing to the profoundly deaf. Cardiac pacemakers are another example of humans’ longstanding acceptance of implanting small machines into their bodies for medical reasons. While medical technology will continue to be an important driver in this field, convenience is also driving advances.

Early research has found that brain waves can be interpreted using a machine for simple functions such as thought-controlled movement. Applying this research, AI therefore offers the opportunity for more complex augmentation. One example of this is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which recently commenced examining technologies that allow heads-up displays to be projected via the human visual cortex. There is a history of humans accepting implantable technology to prolong life. It is not a big leap to accept that in future, if the technology is available, military personnel will receive implanted augmentation that enhances their physical and cognitive functions.

Enterprise and Battlefield Applications. It is apparent that each of these areas will see continued development over the coming years. However, one might also assume that the ultimate development of implantable augmentation will be implanted augmentation for the human brain. There are a range of reasons this might be desirable: quicker and better recall of information, better analysis of options, replacement of lost capabilities (where soldiers may have suffered brain injuries), and-potentially even enhancements to mental resilience and prevention of PTSD.

Efforts to this end are already underway. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink. The nascent company will seek to design and build devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the intent of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could also potentially improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.


The forms of human-machine integration discussed in this article offer the potential to make it safer and easier for military personnel to do their jobs – on operations and while training at home. Mechanical and chemical enhancements have long played a role in the military. But the capabilities of new robots and AI, and the potential of augmentation, offer a potential revolutionary shift in how the military trains, plans, and fights.

Society is yet to reach the technological mastery of the robots described by Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick. Nor has mankind achieved the levels of artificial intelligence shown in many films, starting with Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001 A Space Odyssey or the cognitive augmentation described by John Scalzi in Old Man’s War. But a look at historical technology development shows that exponential patterns of development extend beyond Moore’s law. Wireless capacity doubles every nine months. Internet bandwidth backbone is doubling roughly every twelve months. The number of human genes mapped per year doubles every eighteen months. The resolution of brain scans doubles every twelve months.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest robotics, AI, and augmentation may chart a similar path in capability growth. We can and must assume that there will be similar exponential growth in the capabilities of robots, machine learning and different augmentations for humans. These advances are highly likely be used to significantly enhance the capabilities of our future adversaries. Western military organizations may have little choice but to do the same. However, in planning and implementing these advances, there are many challenges. That is the topic of the third and final article in this series on human-machine teaming.

Major General Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Australian Army, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

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Header image: Oliver Barrett