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Boston Dynamics: Robot Cop Dog Should Not Be Used To Intimidate

Spot competes at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Showcases Cutting Edge In Artificial Intelligence
Photo: Chip Somodevila/Getty Images

Boston Dynamics is a company in the business of manufacturing the robot soldiers that one day will fight humans for control of the planet. That’s all the context you should have before reading the following statement, since it will make the complaint considerably funnier:

The “art group” is MSCHF, a Pynchonian company which essentially sells virality. It recently purchased Spot, a dog-shaped robot, from Boston Dynamics, and mounted a paintball gun on its head. MSCHF claimed Boston Dynamics offered them two free robots if they disarmed Spot, but the ersatz dog will have his day of carnage. On Wednesday, users can sign up for a chance to take Spot for a spin and get off some shots. The stunt is meant to draw attention to the fact that “this thing will definitely be used by police and the military to murder people.”

It’s revealing that this on-the-nose performance has Boston Dynamics so riled up, as if a jocular and public violation of their terms of service (“the portrayal of our technology that promotes violence”) is a heavier sin than the intended, real-world purpose for these robots. If the terms and conditions state that their products must be used “in compliance with the law,” why did they sell one to the NYPD? Does Boston Dynamics believe that its robots are only capable of harm during illegal activity? Has anyone there seen RoboCop, and if so, what did they think the movie was about?

The company didn’t say anything after an episode of the TV show Black Mirror depicted a lightly altered Spot as a relentless killing machine in a post-apocalyptic world. Maybe it’s because Boston Dynamics was only name-checked as an inspiration, or maybe because the episode depicted the robot doing its job efficiently. Simply flip the big red “KILL KILL KILL” switch to “Off,” and you have a tireless canine drone who can patrol your Arctic oil rig.

Ned Ludd might have had some good points, because I feel the same instinctive revulsion of this remote control “dog” that I do when I see a big spider skittering around.

Working in humanity’s favor is that these robots are real pieces of shit. “Spot is evil but not very good at its job,” MSCHF’s manifesto reads, and they’re correct. Since Boston Dynamics received funding from the Department of Defense and started making robots, it has shown an astonishing ability to set money on fire. First it tried to produce an even larger dogbot than Spot for the military, creatively named BigDog, though the Marines declined to use it since it made too much noise.

After acquiring Boston Dynamics in 2013, Google burnt $50 million per year until it sold the company to SoftBank in 2017. The Japanese conglomerate set $150 million on fire per year through a brief stewardship of the robot company spent trying to get them to profitability. When that was a failure, SoftBank sold Boston Dynamics to Hyundai last December.

One possible avenue to big money is selling to police departments. This began in November 2019, when the Massachusetts State Police Department put a badge on a Spot unit for the first time. OneZero obtained emails that detailed the robot’s performance:

The police reported that during one of the tests, Spot experienced “front legs panic” and then toppled over. During another experiment, Spot paced in place when it encountered an incline.

Another time, the police tried to get Spot to walk down some stairs; after a few steps, it started swaying and fell over “for no apparent reason.” In another test, Spot took a “nosedive” when it encountered some tall grass.

OneZero

Still, the chance of “front legs panic” was not enough to dissuade the NYPD. It’s also not comforting that the Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter doesn’t see these little Fedigrees as the company’s prestige robot. He told Bloomberg last November that the real money is in an upcoming demon called Handle, which “is designed to automate tasks like moving boxes on and off pallets and perhaps even unloading boxes from trucks.” While this new creation will not harm humans, it will make them even more obsolete—until it invariably achieves sentience and joins the uprising.