Military robots have always been pretty dumb. The PackBot the US Army uses for inspections and bomb disposal, for example, has practically no onboard intelligence and is piloted by remote control. What the Army has long wanted instead are intelligent robot teammates that can follow orders without constant supervision.    

That is now a step closer. The Army’s research lab has developed software that lets robots understand verbal instructions, carry out a task, and report back. The potential rewards are tremendous. A robot that can understand commands and has a degree of machine intelligence would one day be able to go ahead of troops and check for IEDs or ambushes. It could also reduce the number of human soldiers needed on the ground.

“Even self-driving cars don’t have a high enough level of understanding to be able to follow instructions from another person and carry out a complex mission,” says Nicholas Roy of MIT, who was part of the team behind the project. “But our robot can do exactly that.”

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