Exclusive: Boston Dynamics says robot dogs aren't meant to harm, in wake of police lease

A three-month trial with the state bomb squad had raised concern.

MA State Police via Ally Jarmanning of WBUR Boston

An executive from Boston Dynamics tells Inverse that the robotics firm leased its robot dog, Spot, to the Massachusetts State Police not to cause harm to any individuals the police might encounter, but instead to scout potentially dangerous environments.

Michael Perry, Vice President of Business Development, told Inverse on Monday after reports surfaced that the company was working with the police. The deal was first reported on by WBUR of Boston.

“Typically, when we think about automation, you either take a giant task and scale it down to a very narrow slice so that it can be deployed in that space, or you refactor an environment so that it can fit automation,” Perry says. “Our approach is then, ‘how can automation be deployed in environments that are unstructured or potentially antagonistic?’”

Perry, who joined Boston Dynamics in August 2018, previously managed business partnerships for the consumer drone company DJI.

Spot Goes Public

Boston Dynamics has long had plans to move Spot out of the lab and into industries like construction, oil and gas, and even entertainment, but it now appears that law enforcement could soon join the mix of clients to use the slightly terrifying technology. Perry describes this as part of Boston Dynamics’ “unique… morphology.” As Inverse reported in 2018, the “overarching goal for the [Boston dynamics] is to become the what Android operating system is for phones: a versatile foundation for limitless applications.”

While Boston Dynamics initially said in 2018 that it was on track to make 1,000 such Spot units by July 2019, Perry told Inverse that while 1,000 units is still the goal and that mass production has begun, the number of units actually in the hands of customers is much smaller.

“Tens-of-units are out with customers right now,” Perry tells Inverse.

While the Massachusetts State Police’s bomb squad is the first law enforcement agency in the country to test these robots, the use of robots like Spot is not new to the department. As of 2017, it has 18 used 18 similar robots, such as SWAT-Bot, which police records say are used on a weekly basis.

“Robot technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments,” state police spokesman David Procopio told WBUR.

The state bomb squad’s lease with Boston Dynamics began in August 2019, and came to an end this month. While Spot was primarily used for testing, the police department did report that it was also used in two other incidents. In all cases, they say that Spot was used as a “mobile remote observation device.”

But what sets Spot apart from other machines used by the department is its increased mobility and ability to maneuver over diverse terrain, which makes Spot an ideal candidate for police reconnaissance work like the bomb squad, Perry tells Inverse.

Perry also says that in addition to Spot’s physical capabilities (it cannot be easily knocked over, and can move on four legs at 3 mph) it also comes equipped with a customizable interface that would allow individual users to program Spot for specific environments, such as dangerous construction sites. (This, however, was a feature the Massachusetts State Police said it did not use.)

Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns over the potential abuses that such an open API might welcome, particularly when it comes to weaponization, Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts told WBUR.

“We just really don’t know enough about how the state police are using this,” Crockford told the public radio station. “And the technology that can be used in concert with a robotic system like this is almost limitless in terms of what kinds of surveillance and potentially even weaponization operations may be allowed.”

This kind of abuse is exactly what Boston Dynamics aims to prevent, Perry tells Inverse, through agreements with lessees that mandate Spot not be used to “physically harm or intimidate people,” which Perry told Inverse is part of the company’s “ethos” for Spot.

"A lease agreement does give us some legal rights to repossess equipment if it’s used in a way that’s contradictory to what the lease agreement says

“A lease agreement does give us some legal rights to repossess equipment if it’s used in a way that’s contradictory to what the lease agreement says,” says Perry. “[And] we are producing at such a small scale at this point that we’re very close to our customers, [so] we can make sure we’re selling to people who we believe share the same interest and vision for the way that we imagined the robot being used.”

That vision, at least right now according to Perry, is primarily for assisting humans with scouting and reconnaissance in unsafe areas, which closely aligns with the missions of the state’s bomb squad as well.

Perry says he believes the same standards already in place for bomb disposal robots will also be enforced on Spot in these environments.

But, as Crockford might point out, it’s one thing to guarantee these safety measures and another to diligently enact them.

While Perry did not speak to specific plans for Boston Dynamics robotics like Spot, he did cite successful strategies he saw work when previously working with drones.

“Successful deployments of the technology ended up inviting community members in to see what the drones are … and have an open conversation about how and when the technology will be deployed,” says Perry.

“Fundamentally, [Spot] is not any different from any other robotics platforms that have been deployed by this group of the Massachusetts State Police.”

However, Perry does note that Spot’s frankly, scary, looks may also be an obstacle to overcome when communicating its benevolent mission to the public.

“I think there’s also something unique about this robot’s morphology that probably requires additional communication,” says Perry.

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