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VIDEO: Just the start? Boston Dynamics robo-dog weaponized with remote-operated paintball gun

SpotMini, Boston Dynamics robot. (Photo by Harry Murphy/Web Summit, Sportsfile, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
February 24, 2021

Boston Dynamics’ dog-like robot Spot was armed with a remotely operated paintball gun by a group of internet pranksters this week, giving a glimpse into the potential for weaponized robots.

The robotic dog was weaponized by an internet prank group called MSCHF (pronounced “mischief”) and the group placed Spot in a mock art gallery and then allowed internet users to control the robot through their phones.

The weaponization of their robot, even as a prank, caused concern for Boston Dynamics, who condemned the display in a Friday tweet.

“We condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight and positively impact society,” Boston Dynamics’ statement reads. “We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.”

“Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives. This art, however, fundamentallty misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.”

The art display comes as Boston Dynamics has been working to expand the robot’s marketability. The company lists potential applications for Spot on its website, including surveying hazardous work environments such as high voltage environments and nuclear power plants, surveying disaster areas, but also in performance art displays.

The company said the use of the robot outside those described in its terms of sale will void the robot’s warranty and prevent the robot from being update, serviced, repaired or replaced in the future. Spot periodically checks in with Boston Dynamics servers and could potentially allow the company to shut off the robot.

Boston Dynamics Vice President for Michael Perry said the company is considering whether to shut off MSCHF’s Spot robot. “We’re wrestling with that,” he told WIRED magazine. MSCHF claims to have a workaround to a potential shut-off by the company.

Daniel Greenberg, a member of MSCHF, told WIRED that while Boston Dynamics wants to market Spot for non-violent uses, the potential that is technology could serve military and police uses is still there.

“Anytime you see [Spot do] a TikTok or a dance it’s like, ‘Oh God, Spot is so happy,’” Greenberg said. “But if we actually talk candidly about what it’s going to be used for in the real world, you could say it’s police, you could say it’s military.”

Boston Dynamics previously developed a similar canine-like robotic pack mule known as BigDog, intended to carry heavy equipment for U.S. Marines on the battlefield. Ars Technica reported in 2016 that the robot was scrapped after tests determined the robot was too loud for battlefield use.

In November, the U.S. Air Force tested another robot similar in design to Spot, developed by the Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics, for use in roaming autonomous security patrols around Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.