Several years ago, when Boston Dynamics began releasing videos of Spot, a sturdy, semi-autonomous four-legged robot, the public was captivated.
In the videos, the nimble dog-like robot is seen climbing up and down stairs, dancing to Bruno Mars music, hauling a large truck and even opening a door with ease, offering a futuristic glimpse of robotic potential that many online observers found shocking.
Now, the same utilitarian qualities that made Spot fascinating to some have attracted the interest of the Massachusetts State Police, which has became the first law enforcement agency in the nation to put the robotic dog to work, according to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and shared with The Washington Post.
Those records — which show internal communications, purchase orders and discussions about police tactics — reveal that the 70-pound robot with a top speed of 3 mph was “leased” to the law enforcement agency’s bomb squad for 90 days, beginning in August and ending in early November.
The purpose of the loan, according to the records, was to evaluate “the robot’s capabilities in law enforcement applications, particularly remote inspection of potentially dangerous environments which may contain suspects and [ordnance].”
Boston Dynamics did not respond to a request for comment, but the Massachusetts State Police confirmed that the agency leased Spot for a three-month stretch and attached the robot to its bomb squad.
Police said Spot was “used operationally” on two occasions, though details about the robot’s use weren’t divulged.
“The Massachusetts State Police have used robots to assist in responses to hazardous situations for many years, deploying them to examine suspicious items and to clear high-risk locations where armed suspects may be present,” the agency said in a statement, adding that the robot was tasked with “providing remote inspection of potentially hazardous objects and dangerous environments that might contain criminal suspects or explosive devices.”
Boston Dynamics was purchased by Japan’s Softbank from Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in 2017. In recent years, the technology company has become known for two things: creating robots whose movements mimic humans and animals; and posting cryptic videos of those robots online, where they quickly go viral, capturing some mixture of excitement and terror about the rapid rise of autonomous machines.
Until now, discussions about Boston Dynamics robots were largely rooted in hypothetical situations. But as robotic tools such as Spot move from the lab to the real world, a more urgent discussion is emerging as civil rights advocates demand more transparency from law enforcement, in particular.
In response to the police records, Kade Crockford, the director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty program, released a statement saying the public knows little about how such robotic systems are being used.
“All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react,” the statement said. “We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies. We also need statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence.
“Massachusetts must do more to ensure safeguards keep pace with technological innovation, and the ACLU is happy to partner with officials at the local and state levels to find and implement solutions to ensure our law keeps pace with technology.”
Concerns about technology outpacing regulation and oversight are pervasive, cutting across a wide swath of new industries. They range from new video-sharing partnerships among hundreds of law enforcement agencies and the doorbell-camera company Ring to the rapid expansion of facial recognition software.
Few of those new applications have been blessed by elected officials, raising fears that police agencies are sidestepping government oversight.
As robots grow in number and availability, some experts have called for a new agency to regulate robotics and address what they view as a lack of available expert knowledge among policymakers. In a Brookings Institution paper exploring the merits and downsides of that proposition, Ryan Calo, an associate professor of law at the University of Washington who teaches courses on robotics law and policy, draws a historical corollary.
“The advent of the train required massive changes to national infrastructure, physically connected disparate communities, and consistently sparked, sometimes literally, harm to people and property,” Calo writes. “We formed the Federal Railroad Administration in response. This agency now lives within the U.S. Department of Transportation, though the DOT itself grew out of the ascendance of rail and later the highway.”
Boston Dynamics has produced other four-legged robots — with names such as Wildcat and BigDog — that can carry heavy loads and run nearly 20 mph.
Spot, which has amassed millions of views on YouTube, went on sale this year and is “shipping to select early adopters,” according to Boston Dynamics. The company says early customers are using the robot to “monitor construction sites, provide remote inspection at gas, oil and power installations, and in public safety.” The machine can be directed by a person using a remote control, but much of the machine’s movements – such as how the robot walks and balances itself – occur reflexively, without human intervention.
Boston Dynamics founder, Marc Raibert, has also predicted that his company’s robots could one day be used to clean up dangerous environments such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site, where human workers have been at risk.
Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics vice president for business development, told WBUR that the company opted to lease Spot to new customers to give company officials the ability to revoke a machine that is misused. The agreements include language that prohibits using the robots to “physically harm or intimidate people,” Perry told WBUR.
“Part of our early evaluation process with customers is making sure that we’re on the same page for the usage of the robot,” he added. “So upfront, we’re very clear with our customers that we don’t want the robot being used in a way that can physically harm somebody.”
Reluctant to reveal the cost, company officials have said Spot will be “less than the price of a car,” according to IEEE Spectrum, a magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.