Via the Blogfather, a well-written piece in the WaPo tells the story of our battlebots and the troops who work with them. It sounds rather familiar to anyone who grew up on Keith Laumer's SF stories of the Bolos, gigantic autonomous battle tanks of the future. Laumer wrote in the 60s, when the images of WWII armor battles still lingered, when counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare were still minor military specialties, and before the miniaturizing effects of Moore's Law had really kicked in. A real 21st century PackBot would be dust under the ten foot wide treads of a Bolo Mark XXVIII.
What's in common between fiction and fact is the tendency of the warriors to give names, ranks and even decorations to the bots, and go well beyond the call of duty in attempting to preserve and repair them. Perhaps unsurprising given the tendency of teamwork under stress to create strong relationships- and a phenomenon fairly well know in the literature. Back in the day... (flashback dissolve) I and a team of folks at Apple showed that you could get people to attribute human emotions to a 32x32 pixel black and white icon fronting for a simple database algorithm (skip to 'Guides' heading here). Then a couple of Stanford profs systematically showed just how simple it is to get someone to project human motivations and social roles onto computing or communications devices, with very modest amounts of cueing. This is so easy that it's likely an evolved pattern - when something shows even a small amount of the behaviors that we associate with humanity, it gets attributed with the whole boatload, because that's been the safe bet over time.
There are other contrasts than size between current day and imagination. From the Bolo to the Lost in Space robot to Forbidden Planet's Robby, the bots of fiction were autonomous, self-contained, and often self-aware. A real battlebot is a manifestation of a network, containing not only itself but remote sensors, processors and storage, and humans. Even the highest priced flavors, such as Global Hawk, have very limited autonomy and depend on remote systems for higher level control. Free running robots like those designed for DARPA's Urban Challenge remain dependent on external systems for environmental information and mission programming and will be networked in any real deployment, to avoid conflict with other forces.
The systems behind these real bots are complex beyond the understanding of even sophisticated engineers, let alone those with another primary task, such as surviving in a war zone. Projecting some form of human behavior onto them is almost inevitable; designing and managing that projection at both the conscious and unconscious levels will be one of the most fascinating challenges as we learn to cohabit with bots. What's starting with soldiers will spread to ordinary life soon enough - the WaPo article appropriately segues to the experience of interacting with the in-car manifestation of a networked navigation system. With modernized societies reproducing at less than replacement rates, networked bots to fill up the labor gap are surely in our future.