BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 11:33 GMT
Robo-reporter goes to war
John Simpson marching into Kabul
Journalists' movements in Afghanistan were restricted
test hello test
BBC News Online's Jane Wakefield
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online
A robotic war correspondent that can get to places even veteran correspondent John Simpson cannot reach is being developed in the US.

The Afghan Explorer looks like a cross between a lawnmower and a robotic dog and has been designed to travel to war zones to provide images, sound and interviews from hostile environments off-limits to human reporters.

Afghan Explorer
Afghan Explorer is roving reporter
Since the early 1990's the US has barred field journalists from war zones.

Fed up with the grainy war coverage shots sent back from the conflict in Afghanistan, director of the Computing Culture Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, came up with the idea of Afghan Explorer.

His inspiration came after watching Rambo III.

"After 11 September, my interest in Afghanistan grew. I rented Rambo III from the video store which shows the other side of the story," he told BBC News Online.

"The US pumped $3.7m into weapons for Afghanistan and I didn't trust the media accounts of what was happening."

Four-wheeled reporter

The robo-journalist he hopes will give a truer picture of what is happening in the wars the United States engages in.

"It is a personal media device for independent news agencies that can't afford hundreds of editors and reporters," he explained.

Afghan Explorer has been modelled on Nasa's Mars Explorer. It travels on four wheels, derives its energy from the Sun and finds its way about using a GPS navigation unit.

Its brain is a laptop computer that connects remotely by mobile phone to the internet to allow journalists to operate it. Its movements can be controlled and a live interview can be conducted via satellite phone.

It has a video console mounted on a neck with two web cameras for ears to give it a human face.

No hard feelings

They can imprison it, shoot it. I don't care. It is just a robot, its feelings can't get hurt

Chris Csikszentmihalyi
Dr Csikszentmihalyi's first mission for his robot-journo will be to send it out into the field, possibly in Afghanistan, stopping to explore areas of interest, photograph events and conduct interviews with people along the way.

Robo-journo has one big advantage over its human counterparts. There will be no-one back home worrying about its safety.

"They can imprison it, shoot it. I don't care. It is just a robot, its feelings can't get hurt," said Dr Csikszentmihalyi.

Human reporters need not worry about their jobs just yet though. There are some things that robo-journo just will not be able to achieve.

"The job of a human journalist can never be replaced. They can offer empathy and sensitivity which the robot cannot," he said.

BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt agrees.

"Machines can't replace humans. It is very rare to have black and white facts. The crucial thing is how you interpret facts and pictures. Central to reporting is the sense of being there," he said.

Freedom fighter

Whatever its role in the field, Afghan Explorer is striking a blow for press freedom says its creator.

"There has been a startling reduction on journalists' movements in the field. In Afghanistan, there was no battlefield footage," said Dr Csikszentmihalyi.

"The huge disparity between the US services' accounts and the people being killing forced me to develop the technology to see what was really happening."

The Afghan Explorer may find that the reaction from the US military is even more hostile than from the local population.

"It's hard to say who is going to shoot it first," said Mr Csikszentmihalyi.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
In pictures: Robots wow Japanese
19 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Sony reveals singing robot
21 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Robot care bears for the elderly
15 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
Pill reminders from robot pets
13 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
When technology makes the news
15 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
The rockin' robot
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories