Dogs come in many helpful forms: seeing-eye dogs, K9 assistants, therapy pets … robotic dogs that can find and defuse bombs.
Spot, the robot dog that Boston Dynamics first began developing out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before spinning off into a full-fledged startup in 1992, is now working with the Massachusetts State Police’s bomb squad, according to filings obtained by that state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a civil rights nonprofit.
The organization accessed a memorandum of agreement document between the state and Boston Dynamics through a public records request. The ACLU first learned of the robot dog after seeing a video posted to the police department’s Facebook page, according to the records request.
“The ACLU is interested in this subject and seeks to learn more about how your agency uses or has contemplated using robotics,” the group wrote in the records request letter.
The nonprofit gleaned some valuable information about the new partnership, including that Boston Dynamics leased the Spot robot dog to the police force for a 90-day period between August and November “for the purpose of evaluating the robot’s capabilities in law enforcement applications, particularly remote inspection of potentially dangerous environments.”
In September, Boston Dynamics announced that select organizations could soon begin leasing the quadruped robot. It isn’t clear exactly how much one of the dogs costs to lease, but surely it’s expensive. After all, Boston Dynamics makes it seem like only organizations and individuals with a certain cachet will be able to get their hands on a Spot robot, given that there’s a whole formal application process.
The ACLU isn’t exactly thrilled with the development. Kade Crockford, program director of the ACLU Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty program, told TechCrunch that the lack of transparency in this situation was worrisome:
There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts. All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies. We also need statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence. Massachusetts must do more to ensure safeguards keep pace with technological innovation, and the ACLU is happy to partner with officials at the local and state levels to find and implement solutions to ensure our law keeps pace with technology.
Like clockwork, the internet had some thoughts on Spot’s new gig as a police dog. It seems like every time Boston Dynamics releases a video of the Spot robot doing, well, anything, people react divisively, either with extreme fear and disavowal or praise for the overlords of our technological future.
In the YouTube comment section beneath the full video of Spot assisting the Massachusetts State Police, user Geri Robel seemed a bit skeptical. “Blade Runner is slowly becoming a documentary rather than a movie,” they said. Another user echoed pretty much the same thing, but about The Terminator.
On Twitter, the meme roast was pretty much what you’d expect:
Boston Dynamics: WE MADE THESE ROBOTS
Everyone: We’re scared of the robots. Can you destroy the robots
Boston Dynamics: WE MADE THE ROBOTS COPS https://t.co/fJ7nXuiDHn
It seems like actor John Cusack wants to hunt the robo-narcs:
And Elizabeth Joh, a professor at UC Davis School of Law, wrote an entire thread dissecting the potential harms that could arise from deploying a robot dog in a public safety setting when pretty much anyone can program the dog bot due to its open API.
It has actually happened. Massachusetts state police are the first to use Boston Dynamics’s *ROBOTIC DOG*
A ROBOTIC POLICING DOG. You customize it with the software you want. https://t.co/S1VQtZtRTR 1/
“Be extremely skeptical of self-limitations like ‘this is only for emergencies.’ State & municipal [governments] need to get serious about what permissible uses of police robots will look like,” she wrote. “You can laugh at the ‘this is a stupid robot no one will fear.’ The real issue is that these are further extensions of recording/investigating/watching by the police without human limits.”