An art collective has armed one of Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs with a paintball gun in an attempt to highlight the dangers of military use of the technology. But they’re aiming at the wrong target – and they are way behind the curve of defense robotics and the real issues.
The ‘performance artwork’ called Spot’s Rampage is the work of the internet provocateurs MSCHF. They acquired a $74,000 Spot robot dog from Boston Dynamics and set it up so that, from Wednesday, anyone can log in to shoot up scenery for two minutes.
Boston Dynamics is understandably irked, noting in a Twitter statement that their robots are not to be armed, that they cannot legally be used to “harm or intimidate people or animals” and that they condemn the portrayal of their robots “in an any way that promotes violence, harm or intimidation.”
While many of Boston Dynamics early projects were carried out with military funding, the company renounced the sale of robots to the military when it was acquired by Google X
In short, these are not the droids you are looking for.
Ironically, Spot’s Rampage probably only exists because of the post-apocalyptic 2017 Black Mirror episode Metalhead in which armed robot dogs hunt down human survivors. The scenario was inspired by one of the writers thinking the Boston Dynamics demonstrations looked creepy. It is not even an original misunderstanding.
Impressive as their robots look in viral videos, Boston Dynamics failed to make any headway in the military market, and the $74,000 price tag for Spot may be a clue. They are sophisticated, but complex. Meanwhile there are robot dogs patrolling Tyndall Air Force Base for the USAF — rather different machines made by rivals Ghost Robotics.
While most robot limbs have a small motor and a large gear ratio, Ghost Robotics employ a larger motor and a lower gear ratio. Their robots sense the ground resistance directly via the motor – hence the company slogan, ‘robots that feel the world’ – and responds instantly, thanks to a smart electronic microcontroller. Co-founder and CPO Gavin Kenneally told Forbes that their design delivers simpler, more robust walking machines, with the potential for much lower-cost production.
The dogs patrolling Tyndall are semi-autonomous, able to follow a given route and avoid obstacles. If they encounter anything unexpected, the operator can take over with manual control, guiding the robot via its video camera, or dispatch a human security team to check out the scene.
Ghost Robotics is also working with the U.S. Army on bomb disposal versions of their machines. This is like a real-life version of MSCHF’s artwork: a disruptor, a shotgun-like device for putting bombs out of action is fitted to the dog’s back. Disruptors on other bomb disposal robots have to be mounted on an arm to line it up accurately with an IED, but the dogs’ four legs mean it can aim up, down or sideways as needed. See a video of it blowing away a suspect device here.
The disruptor demonstrations shows that it may be possible to mount weapons on this type of robot, but it also shows the limitations. This is not a high-speed, long-range device, but something tactical. One day it might be a way of getting an assault rifle to crawl into position on its own without the shooter having to expose themselves – essentially an extension of the remote weapon stations already mounted on many U.S. Army vehicles. These are unmanned turrets with a machinegun, video camera and other sensors allowing the operator to engage targets while staying under armor and out of the line of fire.
What this technology is not leading towards is autonomous killing machines. To find those, you have to look up. Small, lethal drones known as loitering munitions are already in widespread use. Unlike a robot dog, they are able to cover a large area rapidly, searching the ground below for targets. At present they are controlled by human operators, but some, such as the Turkish Kargu, are already claimed to have an autonomous mode to find and attack targets on their own (Kargu even has facial recognition). Cheap and deployable in large numbers, potentially available to insurgents and terrorists, this type of weapon is causing considerable concern in arms control circles. Unlike robot dogs.
Quadruped robots look like a convenient way of carrying sensors across terrain too tough for wheels or tracks, jumping ditches and even climbing fences. Given the need for recharging, they may be more useful in factories, on building sites and in mines than on the battlefield. Moral outrage directed at them because they look creepy is simply misguided and based on a lack of understanding of the real issues.