At this point, it’s doubtless that you’ve come across a video that shows the progress Boston Dynamics has been making on its robots, and as you did, you likely felt a mixture of fascination and revulsion.
There’s something about watching robots walk and act like humans that doesn’t sit well with people, and what’s more, Boston Dynamics didn’t stop with human-like robots. They also moved into making robots that act like dogs.
If, by chance, you haven’t seen these videos, here’s one below featuring “Spot,” the dog-like robot.
Now, imagine Spot is walking down your sidewalk, sitting on top of a building, or perhaps listening to your conversations as you sit in what should be a private place. Don’t worry, it’s not doing that because it’s learning what it can for its future robot takeover, it’s doing so because the police told it to.
According to WBUR, Massachusetts polices have already begun using the Spot robots as “observational devices” and civil rights groups are already gearing up to put Spot down.
WBUR reported that Massachusetts State Police have already deployed Spot in at least two situations:
The state’s bomb squad had Spot on loan from the Waltham-based Boston Dynamics for three months starting in August until November, according to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and reviewed by WBUR.
The documents do not reveal a lot of details on the robot dog’s exact use, but a state police spokesman said Spot, like the department’s other robots, was used as a “mobile remote observation device” to provide troopers with images of suspicious devices or potentially hazardous locations, like where an armed suspect might be hiding.
“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 wrote.
State police say Spot was used in two incidents, in addition to testing.
While this is all well and good, it does raise concerns about where we should be drawing the line, and civil rights groups such as the ACLU are already on the case:
“We just really don’t know enough about how the state police are using this,” Crockford said. “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.”
Beyond an agency policy, the ACLU is urging state and local lawmakers to enact laws or regulations at the state level to govern how increasingly advanced robots can be used. Nothing like that exists in Massachusetts now.
“We really need some law and some regulation to establish a floor of protection to ensure that these systems can’t be misused or abused in the government’s hands,” Crockford said. “And no, a terms of service agreement is just insufficient.”
It’s inevitable that law enforcement agencies would resort to using robots for various tasks that would involve dangerous situations, in no small part because it’s wise. Better to risk a robot than a person in a dangerous situation. As robots evolve, however, the scope of what they should be able to do must come into focus for departments from state to state.
And don’t think police aren’t already chomping at the bit to get their robots.
According to WBUR, a June email from a lieutenant on the special tactical operations team to a colleague stated, “Dude, it’s time,” with a link to a New York Post article headlined, “Boston Dynamics’ creepy dog-like robot is about to go on sale.”
Spot is just one kind of robot, but other robots will soon join the fray, and that’s not a maybe. It will soon become common practice for drone deployment by police departments for various situations that range from scoping out the scene of a potentially dangerous crime, but even for standard patrols. Other robots may soon be used to bring an end to situations.
Dallas police already used a robot to detonate a bomb that ended up killing the sniper during the deadly Dallas shooting in 2016, marking the first time law enforcement has used a robot to kill another human being. This, of course, opens up a lot of questions about how departments throughout the country should be able to use their robots.
We now live in the future, and as such it’s probably wise that we start thinking about how robotic we’d like our police forces to become. If we don’t, things could get real Orwellian, real fast.