Many decades ago, when science fiction was still whimsical and fun rather than dark and dystopian, we saw robots appear in popular culture that were benign and friendly. Some may recall Robbie the Robot from the movie “Forbidden Planet” and, of course, there was R2D2 in “Star Wars”, with a demeanor as cute as any Fox Terrier. But now our movies seem to be much darker for reasons we can only speculate about. Cinematically, perhaps, the turning point was the movie “Terminator” which introduced the idea of the cyborg human that was able to project overwhelming power.
While the nation was busy coping with Covid, several dystopian trends seem to have sprung from a Pandora’s box. I confess that they escaped my notice and the more I continue to research high-tech weaponry as a journalist, the more concerned I find myself getting. Now, looking more deeply into these trends, it’s easy to wonder if we’re living in one of those dystopian sci-fi movies. One of these concerning trends is the advent of the robotic dog, an ugly and malevolent-looking device that looks not unlike a giant, malformed, metallic insect. This trend should concern peace advocates for many reasons but, at the very least, because the development of these machines has its roots in the defense sector and started right here in Massachusetts with a company called Boston Dynamics.
Founded as an MIT spin-off, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google in 2013, underscoring Google’s deep ties to the defense industry. The Waltham-based company (now with a different owner) went on to develop a sophisticated array of highly mobile robots, including “Spot”, a product released in 2019. The company developed Spot and other products with funding from the Naval Air Warfare Center and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Early Uses and Abuses
One of the first uses for robotic dogs was for Covid-related crowd control, often coupled with the use of drones. Robot dogs from Boston Dynamics were used by the Singapore government to patrol public parks to ensure Covid compliance. Since that time, here in the US, there have been numerous ill-advised public sector experiments — fortunately with significant levels of pushback from the local citizens involved. The cities that appear to have most enthusiastically adopted robotic dogs are Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Robotic dogs are part of a new high-tech technology explosion that’s radically altering weapons systems. However, this trend has significant crossover implications when domestic use is involved. It’s important for peace activists to appreciate the implications of this trend in terms of issues such as social justice, mass surveillance, the loss of civil liberties, and the still increasing militarization of police forces happening nationally. Militarism and the militarization of culture are both amped up through such efforts.
The use of robotic dogs should not be seen as an isolated development but also needs to be contextualized in terms of the surveillance state. In February 2023, a groundbreaking article appeared in the Boston Globe describing how pervasive military-style surveillance and control systems have become in the Boston area. The article methodically detailed how law enforcement agencies here operate a huge apparatus of drones, license plate readers, and devices called cell-site simulators.
Robots and More Robots
With this cheery background in place, here’s a quick summary of some history and developments:
* In November 2022, San Francisco approved the use of lethal force for their police robots. There was a huge city-wide backlash and the following month they quickly reversed the decision. It’s now under consideration again.
* In 2021, as reported by WBUR, Honolulu police used a robotic dog purchased with federal Covid relief money to take the temperatures of people at a homeless camp. The ACLU called for an end to this practice describing it as “dehumanizing”.
* Robotic dogs have been used in Boston as health care “intake workers”. The Globe reported that, in 2020, a Boston Dynamics dog was purchased by Brigham and Women’s Hospital to process Covid patients.
* The Department of Homeland Security has plans in place to deploy robotic dogs at US borders.
In December 2022, the ACLU weighed in on this topic stating: “Our overarching position is that the police should be prohibited from using robots to enact violence. Robots should not be used to kill, subdue, push, constrain, or otherwise control or harm people.” The ACLU further tied this trend to the nationally publicized problem of excessive violence in policing, leading in many cases to the horrific and unnecessary deaths of black citizens. Because of this vigorous and principled public pushback, Boston Dynamics was forced to state that it would not arm its robots or support customers that chose to do so. However, another manufacturer, Ghost Robotics, has already built robots equipped with rifles which are being marketed to the military.
Whether armed or not, there are other aspects of the use of these devices related to the inappropriate control of social behavior through fear or intimidation. I agree with the ACLU that domestic uses of robotic dogs are fundamentally dehumanizing and would further suggest that they contribute strongly to the militarization of culture and strengthening the power of the surveillance state. Even apart from considerations about whether these devices are armed or not, we face a fundamental choice about the quality of life and the kind of world that we want to build for ourselves and future generations.