Robot behavior reveals the fundamental structure of deception

We've invented robots who can obey you. And now we have ones who can just pretend to obey you. Over at Georgia Tech's Mobile Robot Lab, researchers have spent over a decade studying potential military uses for robots. And what could be better for stealthy ops than a robot who is programmed to lie?


Using animals like squirrels as a guide, lead researcher Ron Arkin and his colleagues have been designing programs that essentially fake each other out. When squirrels hide their food, they often lose their caches to other animals who watch them stashing nuts and then swoop in to steal them when the squirrels leave. To deter thefts, squirrels will often pretend to hide their food in a variety of places before actually stashing the real stuff. Any would-be thieves will be flummoxed when they poke their heads or hands into what a spot the squirrel visited, only to discover a bunch of leaves and dirt instead of tasty acorns.

The Mobile Robot Lab team decided that this animal model would be a good place to start with their deceptive robots. Above, you can see a an example of robots imitating it. Instead of hiding food, however, the robot is patrolling areas where soldiers have hidden weapons or other supplies. It's programmed to check a lot of fake places as well as the real ones. An observer won't know which stops on the robot's patrol are real caches and which are fakes.

Here's a previous experiment that Arkin's lab did with deceptive robots. In it, the bots knock over some markers, then move into another direction before hiding. Another robot trying to track the lying robot assumes it's hidden near the disturbed markers, and looks in the wrong place.

Both of these robot behaviors rely on observers who have been trained to track enemies by looking for signs that somebody has passed by (the markers) or by watching patrolling tactics. You could argue that these robots have mastered the most basic unit of the lie. They cover up the truth with a simple diversionary tactic.

This may mean that lying is a lot simpler than we ever thought. And robots are about to get really, really neurotic.

Spotted on IEEE Spectrum.

You can read the scientific paper on deceptive robot behavior here [PDF].



I saw that movie. It didn't end well for either man or machine.

- 2001: A Space Odyssey, MGM, 1968