The use of robots in hazardous or unsafe situations by police forces around the world is now an unsurprising scenario. However, one police department in the United States has been silently testing and integrating “Spot”, referred to by some as a “terrifying” robot “dog”.
Boston Dynamics’ “Spot”, is generally referred to as a robot “dog” since in its standard form it looks a lot like a headless metallic dog. It is a nimble four-legged robot that can climb stairs and navigate rugged terrain with unparalleled ease. It was built to be a rugged and customizable platform, yet small enough to be used indoors. Boston Dynamics is a U.S. based company; it is now a wholly owned subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp (which is a Japanese investment conglomerate). Boston Dynamics was acquired by SoftBank from Alphabet (Google’s parent company) back in 2017.
Quite a few years ago, Boston Dynamics started releasing videos of the semi-autonomous four-legged robot “Spot”. In the videos, the nimble dog-like robot was shown to be able to open doors, haul a large truck, climb up and down stairs, do parkour, persist to open that door even when blocked by a hockey stick-wielding human, and even amazingly dance to Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. Such actions showed us a glimpse of the potential future of robotics, while shocking and terrifying many online viewers.
These same useful qualities that made “Spot” captivating to most, and “terrifying” to some, have attracted the interest of the Massachusetts State Police. This police force has become the first law enforcement agency in the Unites States to put the dog-like robot to work in a real-life environment. This has raised an alarm among civil liberties promoters and police watchdogs in the United States. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Massachusetts was able to obtain official public records on the use of “Spot” by the police force. According to the copy of the lease agreement obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts State Police bomb squad leased the Boston Dynamics’ “Spot” robot between August 7 to November 5, 2019. The ACLU of Massachusetts believes that “Spot”, has already been used in live situations.
According to the Massachusetts State Police, a single “Spot” robot joined the police department’s bomb squad for a period of 90 days to see how it would function in a scenario where there are harmful materials or dangerous suspects present. The purpose of which was for “Spot” to be the one to approach and observe an area or object in certain situations that may not be safe for a person, so that no human life would be endangered. Confirming the ACLU’s suspicion, the police said that “Spot” was “used operationally” on two real-world situations, in addition to the training scenarios that they used it on. The police however did not elaborate regarding how autonomous “Spot’s” performance was, nor did they reveal any specific details regarding these real-world situations.
David Procopio, the spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said “Robot technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments.”
Furthermore, the Police Department justified their use of “Spot”. They cited that under their lease agreement with Boston Dynamics, “Spot” cannot be used to “physically harm or intimidate people.” The Police also reiterated that “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”
Michael Perry, Vice-President for Business Development at Boston Dynamics, mentioned that they want “Spot” to have a variety of uses, from industries such as construction, oil and gas companies, and even in entertainment. He envisions the police or any law enforcement agency sending “Spot” into areas that are too risky and dangerous for humans. Michael Perry told CNN, “…we’re targeting in this space is public safety at large, which includes any first-responder type applications,” he also said “That’s primarily getting initial assessments of a hazardous environment, whether it’s a fire, hazmat or a potential bomb threat, before you have to send in people.”
Despite these assurances from both the Police and Boston Dynamics; the ACLU is principally concerned not so much about “Spot” itself, but about the general absence of transparency particularly concerning the law enforcement agencies’ rules and policies involving the use of robots. Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, mentioned this in his statement, “We just really don’t know enough about how the state police are using this,” he added “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.”
In a separate statement, Kade Crockford of the ACLU told TechCrunch (an American online publisher) that the circumstance was worrisome due to its lack of transparency. He said, “There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts. All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. 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.”