Spot, the robot dog made by Boston Dynamics, was fired this week by the New York City police department, which terminated its $94,000 lease and returned the machine to its maker. New Yorkers handle a lot of odd stuff on a daily basis, but Spot — or “Digidog” as the NYPD dubbed him — was just one uncanny step too far. A spokesman for Mayor Bill DeBlasio reportedly called the robot “creepy” and said he was “glad the Digidog was put down.” He better hope the robots don’t hold grudges, because even though New York may not be ready to see animatronic canines responding to crime scenes, the robot revolution is coming.
Boston Dynamics currently has 500 of these Spot robots working for customers as varied as BP, Woodside, Merck and New Brunswick Power. And according to business development director Michael Perry, they expect to sell 1,000 more of them this year at a price of about $75,000 each.
These dogs may as well be rabbits for how quickly they are set to multiply. In December South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group agreed to acquire 80% of Boston Dynamics for $1.1 billion from Softbank, which will continue to own 20%. Korea’s #2 chaebol, Hyundai (controlled by billionaires Chung Mong-koo and son Chung Eui-sun) sold 3.7 million vehicles last year.
Law enforcement is not going to be their primary market. Rather, the early adopters for Spot so far have been industrial companies. In particular, Boston Dynamics says they expect a lot more interest from the energy sector, especially now that the Biden Administration is scrapping Trump-era actions and boosting regulation of methane emissions that will require companies to better monitor equipment for leaks. Sniffing out gas is right in Spot’s wheelhouse; Perry says the robo-dog’s killer app is its ability “to sense the world and interact with it.”
So far they’ve outfitted Spot with a thermal camera, LIDAR scanner, and sensors to detect not just methane but also hydrogen sulfide and sulfur hexafluoride. A tentacle-like arm attached to what would be Spot’s head can even open door handles.
Spot’s skills in autonomous data collection aren’t just theoretical. Florida Power & Light deploys Spot to electrical substations during storms to collect data without risk to workers. Ontario Power Generation also uses Spot to patrol its nuclear power plants to sniff out potential hazards in radioactive places people can’t go, or can’t stay for long. While at NB Power, Spot was employed in autonomously monitoring a potentially failing weld, allowing operators to run the plant while waiting for replacement parts, without putting any humans in danger. Preventing one day of power plant downtime can cover the cost of 10 Spots, says Perry; “That’s where we see the strongest alignment.”
Acoustic sensors enable Spot to listen for anomalies in engine rooms so loud that after just a few minutes “people have to take the rest of the day off because their ears need to resettle,” says Perry. By listening every day Spot learns a noise baseline, and if one day the cacaphony is too many decibels above normal, it’s a fair bet there’s a problem.
Though some of these applications could be handled just as easily by fixed internet-connected sensors, Perry says Spot’s mobility gives him a leg up. In Norway a company called Cognite has deployed Spot for clients in the oil and gas industry and has taught Spot to patrol a 300,000 square foot shipping yard, identify all the forklifts and mark their locations on a map — like a sheepdog keeping tabs on a flock. Another A.I. developer called Levatas has developed machine vision software that enables Spot to look at old analog gauges, “read” what they say and translate the data into digital.
“It doesn’t matter the terrain or if the environment is changing,” he says — if instructed to go take pictures at 50 places in a facility it will uses its cameras to look around, create a map and figure out how to get where it needs to go. This has proven handy during the renovation of Battersea Power Station in London, where Spot has been documenting the progress of work for Foster + Partners architects under the hypothesis that keeping close tabs on progress will help reduce cost overruns.
Spot’s quadripedal form factor helps with mobility and stability, and although the dog-like shape creeps some people out, it’s more approachable than having six or eight legs, and more versatile than Boston Dynamics’ bipedal humanoid-shaped robot Atlas.
Naturally, any advanced robot becomes a kind of Rorschach test. Some want to know how soon it will be able to make coffee and toast. Others leap to weaponize it. In February Boston Dynamics condemned an art gallery spectacle in which a group called MSCHF bought a Spot, outfitted it with a remote controlled paintball gun. The resulting video, Spot’s Rampage, is a kind of social commentary on the inevitability of killer robots.
“There are moral and ethical reasons to not want to see a robot weaponized,” says Perry. “We have been clear with all customers that they cannot use Spot to harm people or enable a weapon. But it’s hard to govern.” So hard that if a Spot owner breaks these terms and conditions, Boston Dynamics can refuse to service the robot or update its software.
That’s not going to be enough to keep the cat in the bag, nor is some quaint notion that robots can be programmed with some version of Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Already in 2016, Dallas police used a (non Spot) robot to deliver a lethal explosive to a gunman who was holed up in a parking garage after shooting five officers to death. For a terrifying vision of Spot’s possible future utility, check out the “Metalhead” episode from the dystopic scifi series Black Mirror, featuring killer robots that the show’s creator admits were inspired by Spot.
These conundrums will evolve as quickly as the robot does. Perry marvels that 2.5 years ago Boston Dynamics needed 15 engineers on hand to demonstrate the robot. Now it can demonstrate itself. Perry says that when Spot is deployed to an industrial site, on the first day everyone has to stop work and gawk at the uncanny creature. But the novelty soon wears off. “By the end of the first week it’s in the background and nobody’s paying attention.”