Super-Robot TAMS Navigates a Marine Corps 'Kill House'

A Corpsman enters the "Kill House."
A Corpsman with 2nd Medical Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group enters the "Kill House." (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Shawn Valosin)

The following is an excerpt from "Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution," by Peter W. Singer and August Cole.

FBI ACADEMY HRT COMPOUND Quantico, Virginia -- Sunbeams lanced the finger-sized holes punched in the walls, visible from the dust and powdered plywood that swirled in the dark with the faint breeze. Standing just inside the entry doorway of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) Kill House, Keegan blinked to get her eyes used to the dark. It also made her realize she'd have to go deeper into the specs to see what the bot's visual sensors were able to handle.

"You sure it's OK to be here?" she called out.

The rubber coating on the walls, put there to prevent ricochets, gave the sound in the room a different tone, absorbing the noise of her voice just as they would the energy of bullets.

"For anyone else, no way. But you've got an in with the management." Special Agent Noah Reddy chortled in the distinct way he always did. It sounded a bit like laughing, only inside his Adam's apple. Keegan had first heard that laugh back in Missouri, when the two of them had been paired up in the military police basic course at Fort Leonard Wood. Even though they had an obvious connection, Noah never once hit on her. She'd respected that, as it had been the last thing she was looking for then. When he'd invited her out clubbing in St. Louis the night of their first leave, she'd worried that it was going to ruin everything but quickly learned he had other plans. "No better wingman than a female friend," he had explained. And they'd watched each other's six from that point forward.

Burn-In cover
Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Over a decade later, he had speckles of light gray in his stubble, which meant they were both getting old. But the laugh was the same.

"One of the perks of HRT," Noah continued, "besides getting to actually, you know, shoot the guns, is we get to decide who comes and goes."

"Thanks. I need to keep this between us. I don't want this getting out until I have a better handle on what I'm dealing with."

They could have used Hogan's Alley, the massive 10-acre range that the FBI had built for shooter training, replete with fake office buildings, schools, and even a post office. But today called for something a bit more private, hence the call to Noah for access to the Kill House.

Located in a quiet corner of the Quantico facility, it was where the FBI's most elite squad conducted its riskiest live-fire training -- the kind that was increasingly frowned upon by senior Bureau officials in a time when virtual reality weapons training could be conducted with zero chance of injury or death. Servare Vitas was the HRT motto. But to "save lives," you had to risk them. Pure digital simulation couldn't prepare you best for the real world, something that applied also to this machine.

Perhaps even more important, the mazelike series of rooms in the HRT's training facility could also be reconfigured into a variety of layouts. For the team, it was to train for a range of different tactical environments, which might be anything from an actual hostage rescue to backstopping a raid on a synth cartel kingpin. For TAMS, it would mean a setting it had never been through before, as whatever layout Noah chose would be a new one. Both Keegan and the machine would be going through blind.

"Important question for you, though," Noah called back, climbing down from one of the catwalks above, from where instructors would typically track the progress of a shooter moving from room to room. "You give your bot a name yet?"

"Technically, it's TAMS," Keegan replied. "No way I'm renaming it."

"You remember how the boots would do that?" Noah said, using the slang for junior Marines who acted as if they were still in boot camp. "And they'd then start to get feelings for little Scooby Doo or whatever name they gave it, like it was a family pet? One guy in the 3rd even ran out into machine gun fire just to save his robot buddy that had gotten stuck on a berm. Came back dragging the parts all proud, like he should win the Navy Cross for rescuing a fellow Marine."

"F---ing stupid," Keegan said. "No matter what a bot looks like or how smart it gets, it's not a person. Just a tool for a job." She looked over at TAMS to check for any signs of reaction. Nothing. Just quiet observation. "This one's a little bit different, though, you know," said Keegan. "For one, it costs a lot more than anything we had."

"Everything costs more than what Marines get, that's why we're Marines," he said.

"Too true." Keegan had never ceased to be disappointed in the low quality of the equipment she had to contend with in the Corps, even the combat bots. Her idea of military service, fueled by video games, led to a massive shock when she was issued boots that were too big, pants that were too short, and it took days to find extra batteries for her first set of roach bots.

"Your bot's bigger, but not big enough," said Noah. "It's about my son's size."

"Don't you give your kid any milk?" said Keegan.

"No, I don't want him to end up in the Corps like his old man. If he's a runt, then he can go Air Force and just fly drones from the den." His tone shifted, a sign it was time to go to work as he said, "Keegan, you sure you don't want to just go to the range? Start at 10 yards, work up from there? You know, do this like a normal person would?"

"No," she replied. "We'll work through the course together first, and let it follow along."

"Just make sure your bot stays on the correct side of the muzzle," said Noah.

"You know there're a few people in HQ that I think wouldn't mind that kind of accident."

"Not on my watch," he said. "You did not bring your weird childlike robot here to get schwacked at my Kill House, clear? We're grownups now. Mortgages. Kids. We don't do that s--- anymore."

Keegan gave him a mock salute but didn't say anything.

Noah walked them back to the start of the close-quarters shooting facility and flicked at a tablet, likely directing the facility to shift a wall or two. Keegan knew him well enough to realize that even giving them that sneak peek at the first room was a misdirect. Would the machine?

Here they stood beneath a cheap wood stall that looked like a fireworks stand. Keegan noted that, with Noah now standing to her right, the robot chose to stand on her left. Somewhere along the way, someone had programmed that human-to-human communication took precedence over robot-to-human positioning.

On a table was a black FBI service-issue 40-caliber Sig Sauer 420, similar to the pistol Keegan wore on her side. It was the same pistol issued to the Army and Marine Corps, but this one had been customized for HRT, with a thumb-sized black targeting pod add-on beneath the barrel and an extended magazine that jutted an inch below the pistol's butt.

Noah pointed at it. "We'll run through with the HRT Sig first." Keegan picked up the new pistol, which synced to her viz once it mapped her palm. Pistols at the ready, Keegan followed Noah through the open door to the shoot-house.

"TAMS, follow 3 meters behind my movements."


"Yeah, and don't get shot, while you're at it," Noah added.

"You have to begin with its name if you want to give an order."

"Whatever. Just show me what you've forgotten … Kill!" he said, Marine lingo for "Let's do this!"

Noah waved his left hand, two fingers making a slight tapping gesture in the air. At that, the room seemed to come to life. Mannequins bolted to cheap autonomous vacuum cleaners started to move. The first room on their left had three possible targets. Keegan quickly noted the weapons silhouette on two of them and moved to fire. But before she could get a shot off, Noah had already fired a double tap into the center of the silhouette. On Keegan's glasses, the target color turned red. She quickly shifted to fire at the second armed target, noting it wore body armor -- head shot needed. She fired off a quick shot that clipped the edge of the head, a scratch on the ear at worst, and then a second round through the center of its head. The target turned red as well, while the third mannequin rolled on, an innocent trying to trick them into firing at it.

On and on, room by room, they moved carefully through the building while TAMS followed. Keegan noted that, at every shot, the bot flinched, jerking its head to the right or left, forward or backward, toward the direction of the sound. It was an automated gunshot detection app, giving a visual clue to where the firing was coming from, almost like a pointer dog.

She reached across to touch Noah on the arm, the signal to stop.

"TAMS," Keegan yelled. "Reset to track only non-law enforcement weapons fire.

"Confirmed," TAMS responded, but at the volume of a shout.

Besides the green concur sign on her glasses, she'd heard it through her earplugs. Good. The robot had modulated to what it thought the needed volume was. Keegan removed her hearing protection and walked back to the starting point, Noah and TAMS following. Behind them, the target mannequins were now vacuuming up the ejected shell casings.

"Not too bad, Noah," Keegan said. "You do this like it's your job."

"I do mine, so you don't have to do yours. If you ever get in trouble, just dial H-R-T."

"Didn't see you at Union Station."

"Touché," Noah replied. "Let's get the official count." He paused and looked at Keegan as if for permission, gesturing to TAMS with his head.

She nodded.

"TAMS," Noah said, "you poor unlucky machine that has to work with Agent Lara Keegan, who has never been able to shoot straight since her days at Fort Leonard, please provide the range scoring."

"Agent Reddy completed the course with a 100 percent accuracy rate of discharged rounds on target and 94.1 percent in optimal impact areas. Agent Keegan completed the course with 91.4 accuracy rate of discharged rounds on target and 77.1 accuracy rate of discharged rounds in optimal impact areas," the robot said.

"Good of your machine to confirm something we already know, that I'm way better than you," said Noah.

"Let's run it again. This time, I'll use my own weapon," said Keegan, and then with a flourish, "and I'll run it with the bot."

Noah let out a sigh. "That's not a good idea." "And?" "You want me on your six?"

"No, I'm good," said Keegan, and Noah headed toward the stairs that led up to the second level of the Kill House.

Back at the wood stall, she put the HRT pistol in her empty shoulder holster and picked up her pistol. It was her Bureau-issue 420 model Sig Sauer. She had modded it with the 3D printer in the HQ shooting range underneath the old Hoover Building, the grip retextured to her palm, a lighter trigger pull, and a cork-sized compact flash/sound suppressor, its design inspired by the intricate siphuncles of a nautilus shell. It lacked the refined industrialized aggression of the HRT-model pistol; it was more like one of those fabbed weapons they used to seize from jihadi workshops reeking of cheap Chinese plastic and stale cigarettes.

Keegan put on her AR glasses, synced her pistol, and then paused to pull the left side ear protection off and push it back on again. The last adjustments were more about taking a moment to re-center herself. Then, she turned to TAMS.

"TAMS, follow me, spacing 1 meter," she said, speaking slowly and in as neutral an accent as possible. How many times had she seen a wrangler get into trouble with a bot during combat because the machine didn't understand Texan? "Active target scanning protocol."

As she said the last word, Keegan leaped through the entrance and rolled into the first room, popping up on one knee in a firing position. The room had the same three bots, but repositioned. She aimed at the first target and blasted it with a double-tap shot to the chest and one to the head.

TAMS immediately sent her vizglasses a smiley face emoji as acknowledgment of a hit. She'd have to remember to get it to change that setting. It would be damn off-putting in an actual firefight. More usefully, though, TAMS provided a bright blue X over the unarmed target. Inside the next room, she engaged the single target as her glasses cued up another on the empty wall, a pulsing red sphere overlaying the rough wood. It pulsed back and forth, but there was nothing there. For a moment, she assumed the feed had crapped out, like it sometimes did.

Then it clicked -- the bot was picking up the motion of the targets in the next room. Keegan quickly fired three shots into the ghost on the wall, showering tooth-sized splinters into the air as the bullets punched through. She entered the next room to find a mannequin with three holes in its torso. Noah whistled his appreciation from the catwalk above.

For the next few rooms, she had TAMS take pictures and send them to her vizglasses, so she had a preview of what awaited. Where the walls were cement block and too thick for the acoustic sensor, it used the tiny pinhole camera in its fingertips to peer around the corner. It all felt like cheating, and maybe it was, but it worked, and fair wasn't something that counted in a gunfight.

One level crossed. Now for the next.

Cursing under her breath, she paused in a room that had been set up like a kindergarten classroom for a mass shooting scenario and stood in front of the wooden teacher's desk. She hated these tactical training setups, as did anybody who had grown up going to school each morning fearful they might never walk out again. It brought back that sense of utter powerlessness you felt during mass shooter drills. Her kindergarten teacher had tried to sugarcoat them by saying it "was just like playing hide-and-seek," but even then they knew.

Keegan motioned for the robot to come stand by her and then conspicuously pulled from her pocket a neon orange plastic sleeve with a bright metal-looking sphere at the end of it. She held it in front of TAMS to allow it to inspect it.

"TAMS, identify."

"It is a single-shot Alternative Less-Than-Lethal Weapon System." It was an ingenious little device that converted a pistol from a killing machine to a hurting one. The ball on the end "caught" the bullet exiting the muzzle, slowing it down by nearly 90 percent, giving it the punch of a beanbag round but the accuracy of a regular weapon. The other catch was that it could only work once; part of the trick was that the ball melded with the round.

"Correct. It is a non-lethal that you are authorized to use." She set the orange sleeve on the table, pulled the second pistol from her shoulder holster, ejected its magazine, and flicked out all the rounds but one. Racking the pistol again, she pulled back the slide twice to ensure there were no bullets in the chamber. Both she and the robot already knew that, but rules were rules. On the third time, she racked it again and locked it, holding it at an angle so both she and TAMS could do a visual inspection to see there was no cartridge that had somehow escaped the last two tries. She clipped the orange sleeve onto the muzzle and slid the magazine back into the pistol. The whole time, TAMS observed the process.

"We really doing this, Keegan?" called Noah from above. "We ain't in Saudi anymore. Armed sentry bots out on the base perimeter in a war zone are one thing. But all your robot friend has to do is pinch that ball off and cap you in the back of the head. I don't need the Robopocalypse starting on my range."

"It doesn't need a gun to kill me," Keegan replied. "It could just pinch my head off with two of those metal fingers." She turned back to the machine, holding the pistol out, muzzle pointed down, aimed just in front of TAMS's feet. For some reason, Haley's face came into her mind and she shook her head, clearing the image, then turned the pistol so the butt was facing TAMS. "TAMS, engage secondary targets, standard close-quarters battle training ROE. Confirm?"

"Confirmed." The bot stood stock-still, and then its right hand grasped the gun.

Keegan took a deep breath and turned her back to the machine. It was hard to hear with her ear protection on, but she could swear that she felt the auditory click of the gun's safety. She burst through the doorframe of the next room, kneeling this time. Two targets -- Keegan engaged the first one on the right. Two shots to target center.

TAMS entered the room just behind her, with its pistol extended forward in two hands, the gun at the point of the classic triangular shooting position.

Once inside, the robot transferred the gun to its left hand, to better engage the remaining target from its position at the doorway. Keegan jerked back, surprised at the unexpected movement. She should have known, though, that right or left hand wouldn't matter, and it didn't need the second arm to steady the gun like a human would. The gun fired and a mass of orange exploded on the target's chest, center mass, knocking over the robot target.

"Stand down, TAMS," she said to the robot. The robot engaged the Sig's safety and affixed the pistol to its breastplate, where a magnetic spot held it. The bot's designers had thought of everything.

Noah yelled down from the catwalk overhead. "Holy s---. Never seen that before," he said.

"Me either," Keegan said.

"Would have been useful for us back in the day."

"Maybe," she replied. She could think of scores of Marines who might still be alive with a bot like TAMS, a few of them with names etched on her arms. But it might not have made any difference, either.

"We gotta let it run through totally on its own, maybe do it with something more lethal," said Noah.

"Not going to happen, Noah," said Keegan.

"Aren't you curious? C'mon, we're off the grid here. What do you say, TAMS? How would you like to try?"

"Agent Noah, my security protocols do not authorize any use of lethal weapons, nor non-lethal fire without human authorization."

"And there it is. That's exactly the problem," said Keegan. "Anybody who has to ask to shoot first is going to be too late to take the shot that matters the most."

"OK, then. How about we test it out using wax bullets? Try it versus my guys, instead of other bots. Be useful for us to go against something other than the vacuum family."

"Another time. But I do have something we meat sacks need to talk on, Barney-style," said Keegan. Noah nodded in assent, getting the signal from her use of the Marine term for needing to break down a complex situation, referencing the old children's TV show.

As they exited the Kill House, Keegan ordered TAMS to stay by the entry. She and Noah silently walked to the compound's perimeter. The noise of one of the HRT unit's V-290 Valor tilt-rotors prepping its engines nearly drowned out the conversation -- as protected as they could get from audible tracking.

"So what do you really think?" Keegan asked. "It's damn impressive, and a little bit of a horror show. That thing is nothing like what we had. It's like some evolutionary s---, going from tiny roaches to a Neanderthal, but in like seven years instead of seven billion."

"I think your prehistoric time line might be slightly off, but I get your point."

"So what's the deal, though?" Noah asked. "They really want you to prove we can use that thing in the field?"

"That's the part I'm not sure of. Dep director was giving mixed signals on that. One of those read-between-the-lines conversations."

"Well, watch your ass, both bureaucratically and literally … and don't forget what Gunny said was rule number one with bots."

"'Never go into battle with a bot you can't trust and never trust a bot you don't know how to snuff out.'"

As she said it, she patted the Leatherman multi-tool that she always kept nestled in a black sleeve on her belt. She thought of the figurative graveyard of overpriced but undertested bots that had been sent to their unit, and then "accidentally" broken in training or gotten lost in the desert, never to be seen again. Better to force a catastrophic overheating, melting memory chips and batteries into an explosive boil, than risk real lives.

"That's right," Noah said. "If a bot puts you at risk, you put it down. Maybe it overheats, maybe trips down some stairs. No matter what, man before machine."

"Woman," corrected Keegan.

-- "Burn-In" was published in 2020 and is now available in paperback.

Story Continues