robotics

Boston Dynamics, 5 other companies pledge to not weaponize robots

Gelo Gonzales
Boston Dynamics, 5 other companies pledge to not weaponize robots

SPOT. Boston Dynamics' four-legged robot Spot is seen in this undated handout imaged obtained by Reuters on February 2, 2021

BOSTON DYNAMICS/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

'We pledge that we will not weaponize our advanced-mobility general-purpose robots or the software we develop that enables advanced robotics and we will not support others to do so,' the companies say

MANILA, Philippines – Robot maker Boston Dynamics, known for its quadruped Spot robot, pledged to not weaponize robots in an open letter published Thursday, October 6. 

Five other companies joined the pledge: Agility Robotics, Anybotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics, and Unitree.

“We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues. Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society,” the letter went, explaining why the companies do not support the “weaponization of our advanced mobility, general purpose robots.” 

“We pledge that we will not weaponize our advanced-mobility general-purpose robots or the software we develop that enables advanced robotics and we will not support others to do so.”

The pledge comes amid what the companies describe as “increasing public concern in recent months caused by a small number of people who have visibly publicized their makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots.”

TechCrunch’s report mentioned some of these projects that might have put these robots in a bad light. One example an art collective that installed a paintball gun on Boston Dynamics’ Spot. The project allowed users to pilot the said Spot unit through a website, and fire a paintball gun in a closed setting. The project was called “Spot’s Rampage,” which was eventually condemned by Boston Dynamics, saying that it fundamentally “misrepresented” their product, and that prior to the release of the project, they had been clear to the group that the robot must not be used in a way that harms people. 

The site also noted that the companies’ use of the term “general purpose” to label the robots it would not weaponize may give some of the companies working with the US defense department some leeway.

“We understand that our commitment alone is not enough to fully address these risks, and therefore we call on policymakers to work with us to promote safe use of these robots and to prohibit their misuse. We also call on every organization, developer, researcher, and user in the robotics community to make similar pledges not to build, authorize, support, or enable the attachment of weaponry to such robots,” the letter went. 

An opinion piece on Forbes dissected the companies’ pledge, saying that, while a pledge is a “worthwhile” consideration, ensuring that robots do no harm is a complex affair that deals with many aspects of artificial intelligence and all its pitfalls. It bemoaned the use of anthropomorphized robots to make them look like a “cuddly loyal dog.” 

“Our willingness to accept these robots is predicated on a false sense of safety and assurance. Sure, you’ve got to make a buck and the odds of doing so are enhanced by parading around dancing robots, but this regrettably omits or seemingly hides the real fact that these robots are robots and that the AI controlling the robots can be devised wrongfully or go awry,” wrote Lance Eliot, an AI expert and a Stanford Fellow at Stanford University. – Rappler.com

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.