BROOKE GLADSTONE: Technology is continually being retooled for modern day warfare in an effort to keep our soldiers as far as possible from the front lines. The U.S. government has already employed unmanned drone planes to drop bombs in Afghanistan, and in the world according to Chris Csikszentmihalyi, remote battlefields may soon be covered by robot reporters. He is the director of MIT's Media Lab's Computing Culture Group and the man behind the Afghan Explorer - a telly-operated, robotic war reporting system that provides images, sound and interviews in real time to get the scoop behind enemy lines. Sounds impressive, but the way Chris describes it, the Afghan Explorer is not much than a video conference system on wheels.
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI: Essentially it has a big solar panel on the back; it has a 4 wheel drive system and then a satellite phone that's built into it as well as a kind of regular off the shelf lap top, a couple of cameras that it can take stereo photographs so we can build up a 3-D representation of the terrain around it, and at the top of a fairly long stalk, kind of like an ostrich neck there's a, a head that looks a little bit like Mickey Mouse, and on this is a, a small television screen and the cameras, and so-- it can come up to you and essentially just start engaging you in conversation through the satellite phone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like a cross between a Teletubby and an - an E.T. How much is the Afghan Explorer costing you?
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI:So far we've managed to keep on budget which is about 10,000 dollars, and it's important to note that the system is made from almost entirely off the shelf parts. The motors are surplus from Xerox machines; the-- tires are out of a lawn mower catalog. Everything's built fairly well, but it's all available off the shelf parts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What route do you plan for the robot reporter to take in Afghanistan and how long?
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI:We were hoping to do something of a east to west or west to east route, and we're working with local independent media organizations in a couple of neighboring countries to actually place the robot and get it over the border. How long is anyone's guess. The robot's pretty slow. It can go 30 or 40 miles a day at best. On the other hand if we do run into someone with a truck and can convince them to take it somewhere else, it really depends on its experiences or you know - in fact whether it gets shot its first day in service.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The shoot on sight scenario raises the inevitable question -- how do you think this can really work? The Afghan Explorer was built specifically to practice journalism in areas that are hostile, off limits physically or politically to human reporters. One mine, and that's it!
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI: Right. That's the pessimistic way of looking at it. An optimistic way may be that one mine - and I've essentially built a mine-clearing system - you know if there's one life that's saved by it getting shot instead, I think we're doing pretty well. I mean there's something definitely quixotic about the project - I won't argue that. I am building a technology to both solve a problem which is that I'm having trouble finding infor--interesting ways of getting information that I understand the many steps of mediation that it's gone through to get to me, but then also to point out the fact that information and the Pentagon are, are not a marriage that seems to be working very well. There's a, a huge amount of information that we don't get because journalists aren't allowed to travel freely across the battlefield and interview people at will.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What about the Heisenberg [sp?] principle --don't you think if a Teletubby/E.T. offspring enters the room it's going to change the nature of the conversation?
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI: As opposed to Dan Rather? [LAUGHS] You know I-- [LAUGHTER] I'm not sure what - what you're - what you're contrasting it to but yeah, of, of course it will, as does conversation with any journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You have drawn a parallel between your Afghan Explorer -- essentially a drone reporter and the unmanned drones used by the Pentagon.
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI: Yeah. I mean I think that this is what Americans are increasingly doing with their technological culture. It's a - a quote from novelist Max Frisch is that technology is the art of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it. We have wars by essentially tele-operated vehicles, and there's a lot of ways in which we're fighting war that really keeps us from understanding the full impact of, of how the war happens to people on the ground, and so rather than fight the system of, of how Americans work with technology, I'm just trying to use it for slightly different means.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Csikszentmihalyi, thank you very much.
CHRIS CSIKSZENTMILHALYI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Csikszentmihalyi is director of the MIT Media Lab's Computing Culture Group which created the Afghan Explorer [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, David Brock comes sort of clean; best seller lists are sullied, and Mike's pockets are -- well, you'll see.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.