Massachusetts State Police (MSP) has been quietly testing ways to use the four-legged Boston Dynamics robot known as Spot, according to new documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. And while Spot isn’t equipped with a weapon just yet, the documents provide a terrifying peek at our RoboCop future.
The Spot robot, which was officially made available for lease to businesses last month, has been in use by MSP since at least April 2019 and has engaged in at least two police “incidents,” though it’s not clear what those incidents may have been. It’s also not clear whether the robots were being operated by a human controller or how much autonomous action the robots are allowed. MSP did not respond to Gizmodo’s emails on Monday morning.
The newly obtained documents, first reported by Ally Jarmanning at WBUR in Boston, include emails and contracts that shed some light on how police departments of the future may use robots to engage suspects without putting human police in harm’s way. In one document written by Lt. Robert G. Schumaker robots are described as an “invaluable component of tactical operations” that are vital to support the state’s “Homeland Security Strategy.”
Strangely, it appears that the relationship between Boston Dynamics and the Massachusetts State Police started through a personal connection, rather than a sales call. In one email from September 1, 2018, a member of the state police K-9 division explains to Lt. Schumaker that, “My friend is the current safety officer for Boston Dynamics and he suggested to the R&D team that they show Spot to law enforcement to obtain feedback for development and marketing to the Law enforcement community.”
Spot has a rechargeable and replaceable battery that lasts for 90 minutes and 360-degree video capabilities, along with plenty of other various sensors. Spot has a max speed of 3 mph and a max payload of about 30 pounds. The dog-like robot can even open doors with a special arm that extends from the robot’s “head.”
The agreement between Boston Dynamics and MSP also includes plenty of curious provisions, including a line stating that the police department is forbidden from posting public photos of the robot. In fact, the agreement says that Massachusetts State Police weren’t even allowed to take photos of Spot. But that didn’t stop Boston Dynamics from showing its own video of Spot being used by MPD at a conference from earlier this year.
The memo of understanding covered the period from August 7, 2019 until November 5, 2019, though Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert spoke at a conference in April of 2019 about how the robots were already being used by MSP. Raibert even showed off some videos of Spot opening doors at the behest of the police during a demonstration. Boston Dynamics also did not respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo on Monday morning.
“There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts,” Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts told Gizmodo via email. “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,” Crockford continued. “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.”
As WBUR notes, the first intentional murder committed by a police robot was in 2016, when Dallas Police killed an alleged sniper with a bomb disposal robot that had been packed with explosives. Gizmodo’s Freedom of Information requests for video and audio from that death were denied at the time, and police forces around the country are incredibly secretive about how they use robots.
The 69-year-old CEO of Boston Dynamics doesn’t like that the public finds his robots scary and it’s probably a safe bet that Spot, the four-legged robot, is being rolled out to police departments before Atlas, the bipedal version, on purpose. Human-like robots are much more terrifying than dog-like robots, especially if they’re supposed to be tracking down suspects.
“I’ve looked at a tally of the headlines, and it’s a high percentage of them that call it terrifying,” Raibert told Boston.com during an interview last month.
“It’s true that some aspects of our robots look like people and there’s some people who do bad things,” Raibert said. “But looking like a person means you have arms, you have legs, you can walk. It doesn’t mean that you have emotions and a personality and an ego—basically, all the things that motivate malicious action in humans.”
Obviously we’re on the cusp of something new here as robots, autonomous or otherwise, start following cops around and go knocking on doors. The next step will surely be putting weapons on these things.
The question that remains is whether the American public will simply accept robocops as our reality now. Unfortunately, it seems like we may not have any choice in the matter—especially when the only way that we can learn about this new robot-police partnership is through records requests by the ACLU. And even then, we’re still largely in the dark about how these things will be used.
Update, 2:30pm ET: Boston Dynamics just sent Gizmodo a statement:
...the Mass State police is our only public safety-focused relationship to date. In the next 5-10 years, we see first responders utilizing Spot to get eyes on dangerous situations, inspect suspicious packages, as well as sense hazardous gases in emergency situations. Sending a nimble robot like Spot into these situations can remove humans from potentially life-threatening environments and provide emergency responders with better situational awareness of a crisis. These are the same capabilities that oil and gas, electric utility, nuclear decomissioning [sic] and mining customers will use to perform critical safety inspections without exposing people to risk.
We’d like to stress again that our written license agreement with Spot customers does not permit use of Spot for any purpose that would harm or intimidate people.