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How soon until Boston Dynamics’ viral robot dogs roam the streets?

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AFW Article Cover (Robot dogs)

How soon until Boston Dynamics’ viral robot dogs roam the streets?

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed’s network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we’re featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

On February 9 2015, American engineering company Boston Dynamics introduced a new robot to the world. Over 29 million people watched as a mechanical quadruped named Spot stalked through hallways, climbed a hill, and resisted the kicks of its human masters. A year later, a smaller, sleeker Spot caught the attention of 40 million YouTube viewers as it crouched under a table, loaded a dishwasher, and righted itself after slipping on a banana peel. 

Since then, 11 million people have seen Spot open a door, eight million have watched it pick up trash from the snow and 29 million gawped as it shook its booty to some sixties rock ‘n’ roll. Spot the robot dog has now been used as a bartender, a cheerleader, a nurse, a site surveyor, a policeman, a sheepdog, a rickshaw driver, and a social distancing enforcer. While its CV is varied, one thing has remained consistent throughout Spot’s career: its ability to break the internet over and over again.  

A mixture of awe and fear keeps us watching as Spot becomes more and more competent (sample YouTube comment: “Please tell your future generations that we humans would love to live”). It would be entirely on brand for humanity to laughingly witness the encroaching robot apocalypse via meme, but how long do we really have until Spot emerges from the safety of our screens and becomes commonplace on our streets? Should we be afraid, very afraid – or should we welcome our new robot overlords? 

In June 2020, Boston Dynamics made Spot commercially available for the first time, with companies able to purchase the robot for $74,500 (£53,000) provided they promised not to use it as a weapon. Individuals aren’t yet permitted to buy Spot – it’s only intended for commercial use – but around 400 have now been bought. As a result, more and more people have now seen Spot in the wild (two women who recently witnessed one walking on a sidewalk chose to shout “Jesus Christ!” and “I love you so much!”, neatly summarising conflicting attitudes to the dogs). 

Earlier this year, Abel Ros Lao was out for lunch with a friend in Seville when Spot the dog walked past, a bunch of beers on its back. The 42-year-old didn’t find the robot creepy or disturbing, but instead “started to laugh”. “It is funnier in real life,” he says, explaining that he enjoyed seeing it interact with people, allowing them to grab their drinks while remaining socially distanced from bar staff. But not everyone enjoys being confronted with a robot dog. Geneva, a 32-year-old grad student from LA recently saw a non-Boston Dynamics quadruped walking down the street where she lives.

“They’re bigger and more powerful looking than I thought, and it’s weird to see something non-alive move autonomously through my neighbourhood,” Geneva says. She found the experience unnerving, as though she had “walked through the uncanny valley and came out the other side”.

In recent months, many people have had reactions like Geneva’s when confronted with footage of robot dogs. In February 2021, reports emerged that the NYPD had deployed Spot to a crime scene in the Bronx, leading congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to nickname them “robotic surveillance ground drones” targeting “low-income communities of colour.” A Twitter thread informing people how to disable the “brutalizing” dog went viral, with over 14,000 retweets and 28,000 likes. “We gotta stop calling these things robot dogs,” said another popular tweet. “This is not a dog it’s a menace.”

To make matters worse, the NYPD news coincided with an art installation in which Spot was fitted with a paintball gun. Boston Dynamics criticised the project, raising questions about its seemingly inconsistent policies. How can it be that the company “condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm or intimidation” but is happy to sell the dog to police departments? Who do Boston Dynamics actually want to own the dogs? Where do they want to see them implemented? Do they want them to be available on a mass scale, a commonplace sight roaming the streets? 

“They’re bigger and more powerful looking than I thought, and it’s weird to see something non-alive move autonomously through my neighbourhood” – Geneva, LA resident 

Michael Perry is the vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics - over a half hour call, he stresses that Spot is an industrial machine. “What we are primarily focusing on right now is accessing environments that are too dangerous, too remote or too dull for people to look at on a regular basis,” he says, giving examples of high voltage utility yards, manufacturing facilities, and mines. These areas, Perry says, are where Spot is “most skilled” – right now, the robot is “not designed to work closely with people”, and its 5km per hour pace means its best suited for industrial spaces.

So what’s the deal with PC Spot? Perry says there are misconceptions about Spot’s use by the NYPD – it’s not an attack dog but instead a tool used to asses potentially hazardous situations before human officers are sent onto a scene (it has also been used to deliver food to hostages). “I think a lot of the reaction (to the NYPD deploying Spot) was assuming a use that the robot was not being used for, and also a set of capabilities that the robot doesn’t have,” he says. Perry nods to the viral Twitter thread about disarming Spot by pulling out its battery pack: “The robot is not designed to harm people, right? And so those are fundamental design decisions that are designed for safety.”  

Yet what Spot is designed for and what customers use it for are ultimately two different things. What would stop the police from using Spot to harass protestors or pin down a suspect? A week after I speak with Perry, news breaks that a French military school tested Spot in combat situations, causing another flurry of negative reactions on social media. Though Spot was seemingly mostly used for reconnaissance, Perry told The Verge that Boston Dynamics were “still evaluating” use cases for the non-weaponised use of Spot by military customers.

If a customer uses Spot to physically harm somebody, Perry says that triggers a violation of Boston Dynamics’ terms and conditions, which could lead the company to take a number of punitive measures. These range from voiding the warranty, refusing additional sales to the customer, and preventing software updates on the machine. In the last case, the robot would become “a paperweight”. 

In the MSCHF paintballing case, Perry says that because ultimately no one was harmed, there was no violation of Spot’s terms. But while punitive policies are reassuring, they could become increasingly difficult to enforce as more and more Spots flood the market. What if someone, for example, resells their Spot on eBay? “We ask people to notify us if the user has changed,” Perry says. What if they don’t? “Obviously, we’re growing our commercial footprint, so we’re continuing to evaluate our policies as our business continues to expand.” In the situation with the French military school, Spot had been supplied by a European distributor, and although Boston Dynamics were aware that its robots were being used with the French military, they did not about the planned use.

“The robot is not designed to harm people, right? Those are fundamental design decisions that are designed for safety.”  – Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics

Does all this mean it’s wrong to be afraid of Spot? Writing in The Guardian in November 2019, tech researcher and freelance writer Oscar Schwartz claimed our fears about robot dogs are misplaced. Rather than being creeped out that robot quadrupeds signal the start of a sci-fi human-murdering apocalypse, Schwartz argued we should be concerned instead about “a private company making agile, powerful, autonomous machines”, citing Boston Dynamics’ historical funding by DARPA, an agency of the United States Department of Defense. Should one company be the sole arbiter of who gets to use such powerful tech? 

Nathan Lepora, a professor of robotics and AI at the University of Bristol points out that secrecy from Boston Dynamics previously hindered academia. “Because of going private and working with DARPA, the research wasn’t being propagated to the rest of the academic community,” he says. Still, Lepora (who believes it’s “necessary” for commercial companies to protect their intellectual property) notes that the field is now catching up.  

“They have been the lead for 10, 15, 20 years,” Lepora says. “Nobody else knew how they were doing it because they wouldn’t tell you, but now… there’s a number of other companies producing machines that look pretty similar to the dog robots and have similar dexterous capabilities.” 

On the one hand, breaking a monopoly is reassuring; on the other this will ultimately mean more robot dogs prowling the streets. But are fears of a Black Mirror-esque society full of menacing robot dogs a little overblown? Can robot dogs actually be good boys? 

Dr Peter Chai credits Spot the dog with helping to protect him from the coronavirus. The emergency medical physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston used Spot for a few months in 2020. The robot was fitted with an iPad that allowed Chai to greet patients and ask them about their symptoms via video, without the need for Chai himself to enter the room. “That was great,” he says, “Especially in those early phases where we were reusing our PPE.” 

Chai and his colleagues were able to procure Spot amazingly quickly – he recalls emailing Boston Dynamics on a Friday and getting Spot into the hospital the very next Monday, which lends credence to the company’s claim it wants to “positively impact society”. In March 2021, Chai published a paper documenting how patients reacted to mobile robotic systems, finding that 83% of people who interacted with “Dr Spot” believed the experience was equivalent to an in-person interview with a doctor. 

“I think with the COVID pandemic, and trying to do what we can to ensure social distancing, people are more accepting of these devices and tech platforms,” Chai says. Those who didn’t like Spot simply had a “wariness around robotics in general”, he says, noting that the majority of patients found the robot “cool” and a “novelty”. 

Adam Ballard, a former Facilities Technology Manager at BP, also found that people were accepting of Spot when he helped implement it on BP’s Mad Dog oil rig. “We had full engagement from our site staff. After a few weeks, it was less of a toy, and more of a worker,” he says. On site, Spot was tasked with “operator rounds” that involved observing pressure gauges, checking for gas leaks via a sensor, and listening out for unusual noises via a microphone.   

Boston Dynamics’ Perry says his favourite use of Spot was when the robot accessed parts of Chernobyl that humans hadn’t been to in over 20 years. “The times that we are most excited about the use of the robot is when it’s taken a person out of a hazardous situation, and put the robot in,” he says. But if Spot is fundamentally an industrial robot, why all the cheerleading and bartending? 

“Our hope is that those experiences demystified the technology,” Perry says, explaining that “cool, exciting, entertaining” uses of Spot help demonstrate its capabilities. Perry readily admits that Boston Dynamics, “need to educate people on what our robots are actually doing and what they’re capable of.” Viral videos are great for producing hype, but when a customer first calls up the company, Perry says, someone will chat to them to ground their expectations. 

“It’s going to be a while before the technology catches up to the user interface so that it’s accessible, so that if you see a Spot walking down the street, you can say, ‘Hey, Spot, go get me a burrito’” – Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics

When are ordinary people going to start seeing Spot out and about? While there’s opportunity for human-based interactions down the line, Perry says that’s not Boston Dynamics’ focus at the moment. “It’s probably going to be a while before the technology catches up to the user interface so that it’s accessible, so that if you see a Spot walking down the street, you can say, ‘Hey, Spot, go get me a burrito’, and it’ll come back and bring you a burrito – that’s a way off.” Nonetheless, Perry says, “that’s certainly one possibility that people are thinking creatively and seriously about.” 

If you think you’ll resist this burrito-delivering robot overlord, Lepora has bad news. The academic argues we are creatures of convenience who accept robots and “don’t even think of them as robots” as soon as they become useful (he cites the Roomba vacuums). Already, Spot has been widely accepted by those who interact with it – one early customer tells me they had to stop staff trying to hug the dog. Ballard says engineers weren’t worried about their jobs being stolen by Spot because BP ensured its “messaging was proper”, reassuring employees that Spot was there to do boring, mundane tasks that would free up their time for more challenging projects involving analysis (though, arguably, robots could later replace those jobs).

“There’s a joke in the robotics industry that a robot is an amazing, futuristic robot until it becomes your sprinkler system,” Perry says. By way of example, he references witnessing Spot on a construction site: at first employees were distracted, excited, or scared. “By the end of the week, it was just wallpaper.” 

Perry says for the next five to 10 years, Spot will primarily be seen in industrial environments and contained spaces, so you don’t have to worry too much about confronting it yet. In the meantime, Spot still has its limitations. Ballard says software tweaks were needed for Spot to find its sea legs on the offshore floating rig, while Chai notes that during the initial implementation of Dr Spot, it interfered with other wireless signals in the hospital, causing “growing pains”. What’s more, Perry notes that Spot can currently be hindered by locked doors – at present, it often walks pre-programmed set routes and can’t autonomously figure out the best way from point A to B if something is blocking its way. And when the French military school trained with Spot, its battery ran out halfway through an exercise and it had to be carried away.

Ballard also notes that Spot isn’t exactly ready to use out of the box. “It’s still probably not to a point where you can hand it to a technician, and they can automatically use it,” he says. He compares Spot’s progress to that of driverless cars: “We’re still early in that space, but the capabilities are there.” 

As recently as February 2021, Spot morphed again – it now has an “arm”, enabling full interaction with its environment. One thing is certain: Spot the dog isn’t going away. In the six years since it first debuted online, the machine has only become more powerful and, gradually, more commonplace. “Our hope is that down the line, there’ll be more and more opportunities for people to interact,” Perry says. In the meantime, he says, Spot will be most commonly be used in dangerous spaces – oil rigs, mines, Chernobyl. “A lot of the most beneficial use cases are things that you or I might never have any direct experience with.”