Robots

Massachusetts Police Test Out Robot Dogs. Is Dystopia on Its Way?

Don’t be afraid of the robopups, but make sure we leash law enforcement to keep officers from misusing them.

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The Massachusetts State Police has temporarily added a robot dog to its bomb squad, leading, naturally, to concerns that Skynet and the dystopia of Black Mirror are upon us. We don't have to let it come to that, though.

Boston Dynamics, the inventors of the adorable/creepy dog robot model, which they named Spot, let the Massachusetts State Police borrow one of their pups from August to November. The state police signed a lease agreement, and have quietly used the robopup for "remote mobile observation" in two incidents, according to a state police spokesman. This is the first use of a Boston Dynamics robot dog by a law enforcement agency.

The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union obtained a copy of the lease agreement and shared it with Boston's NPR affiliate WBUR. The agreement doesn't say much about how the bomb squad is permitted to use Spot, but it does forbid the bomb squad from taking and posting photos of Spot in use; it also forbids both the state agency and Boston Dynamics from advertising Spot's use by the police.

The vagueness of the agreement worried the Massachusetts ACLU because it doesn't put any restrictions on how police might use Spot, though the agreement notes the police are trying to test the robot's ability to navigate and inspect "potentially dangerous environments."

The stated intent is for Spot to serve as an upgrade to the current bomb robots used by law enforcement agencies across the country, not as a weapon. 

The lack of specifics in the agreement about how Spot may be used is creating concern at the Massachusetts ACLU, though. The Netflix series Black Mirror helped push such fears in a 2017 episode "Metalhead," which revolved around killer robot dogs, inspired by videos of Boston Dynamics' robots.

The Massachusetts ACLU wants to know just what the police are doing with these robots. In WBUR's reporting, Michael Perry, the vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, says that the lease agreement requires that the robot not be used to "physically harm or intimidate people." But that clause does not appear in the version of the lease agreement that the Massachusetts ACLU helped to make public. While it's certainly not the norm, we do have one case of a bomb robot being used in Dallas in 2016 to kill a mass shooting suspect. Black Mirror may be stretching the extremes with its completely autonomous murderhound, but it's not outrageous to worry about future police plans.

What the Massachusetts ACLU wants is for police to be transparent about policies for Spot's use and for state lawmakers to enact legislation to control what law enforcement may do with these robots:

"We just really don't know enough about how the state police are using this," [Massachusetts ACLU Director of the Technology for Liberty Program Kade] Crockford said. "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." …

"We really need some law and some regulation to establish a floor of protection to ensure that these systems can't be misused or abused in the government's hands," Crockford said. "And no, a terms of service agreement is just insufficient."

These concerns are similar to fears about police departments incorporating unmanned drones into their operations. Drones can be very useful in helping police and first responders scope out dangerous locations and rescue operations, but without transparent policies and strict requirements, such technologies can easily violate people's privacy and Fourth Amendment rights with unwarranted secret surveillance.

This doesn't mean police should refrain from using new technology like drones and robopups. Rather, it means they should have strict policies for their use and face consequences if—or when—they fail to follow them.

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  1. I’m more disturbed by the fact that that “dog” has a hand for a head than any dystopian concerns

    1. “hand for a head”

      Reminded me more of a graboid’s tongue.

      1. Give it three heads and call it ‘Cerberus, Grauniad of the Underworld’.

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  2. I notice in the first video that the robot opening the door appears to have something on its back – is that the search warrant?

    1. It’s the arm that will hold the bomb they will use to blow you up.

      (See Dallas police dept precedent)

      1. So is the second robot there to confirm the claim of the first one that it smelled marijuana smoke and heard the sound of a toilet flushing, thereby creating the exigent circumstances obviating the need for a search warrant?

        1. Sounds about right.

        2. I almost spit out my coffee. Lol

  3. “”Is Dystopia on Its Way?””

    I would say yes.
    Orwell’s 1984 has been looking like a training manual for a few years.

    Mass video surveillance.
    Government creating profiles of citizen using metadata
    Tracking of citizens movements
    Calls for government to regulate truth

    Next up is government healthcare where government gets a say about your diet and exercise.

    1. Curious who will get blamed when robot patrolled crime stats show similar results to human patrolled crime stats… and how progressives will “correct the algorithm” as a response

      Something to look forward to!

      1. Not meant as a reply. This is meant to be my reply to you…

        “Next up is government healthcare where government gets a say about your diet and exercise.”

        The government wants a fat and useless populace so I doubt any health regulations will be enforced.

        1. The argument will be that taxpayers are being forced to pay more because you are not willing to keep your chronic conditions under control. So you must be force to comply for the greater good.

      2. Consider there is already a position that computers spying on you is not the same as humans spying on you.

      3. To be honest, some progressives have a point here. These new algorithms try to learn everything from data. If it does get biased data in, it will continue making biased decisions. The algorithm is really just mimicking its trainer.

  4. Rather, it means they should have strict policies for their use and face consequences if—or when—they fail to follow them.

    Always end your bit with a strong joke, I know I’m laughing.

  5. Since facial recognition has a problem with dark skin, I expect these dogs to bark at black people too.

    1. I’ve known some racist dogs.

  6. Is the dog’s name “Ed”?

    1. Yes, ED 209 to be exact.

      1. “DROP YOUR WEAPON!”

  7. “We really need some law and some regulation to establish a floor of protection to ensure that these systems can’t be misused or abused in the government’s hands,” Crockford said. “And no, a terms of service agreement is just insufficient.”

    A TOS including a non-disclosure agreement seems to have worked rather well for the cell-tower spoofing StingRays – the cops claimed they weren’t even allowed to disclose to the courts where they got their information because of the NDA and the courts went along with it.

    1. “”and the courts went along with it.””

      Not always. Even Reason had articles where prosecutors were dropping the charges if it might expose the use of them.

      I recall one judge saying something to the affect of they don’t have a NDA with the court.

      But those are probably outliers.

  8. Who picks up the steaming piles of metallic dog shit?

  9. At least when you shoot these police dogs, you wont face murder of a “police officer” but simple destruction of property.

    1. Ha ha ha ha ha,

      It’s a member of the force isn’t it?

      1. Right, since when can a dog be *murdered*?

        1. Only when it’s a member of the police force.

          1. Yup. Otherwise dogs are considered property.

  10. Friday’s door-to-door sweep of Watertown, MA looked shocking in photos and videos.

    Does everyone forget how Massachusetts State Police and Boston Police acted looking for the Marathon Bombers?

    These cops are tyrants and should have their budgets gutted so they cannot buy toys.

    1. I think any settlements should come out of the police budget.

      You want that shiny new helicopter? Then you better behave.

      1. Accidental flag announced

        My bad

    2. Damn, I was just going to post a reminder that the Mass. State Police were some of the last to be expected to comply with “the rules” regarding police conduct, beat me to it.

  11. Wasn’t there some kind of robotic dog-like thing in Fahrenheit 451? Or am I confusing dystopias?

    Anyway, this is obviously a disaster for at least a couple reasons:

    * It allows escalation of force at no risk to the escalators
    * If it comes to be driven by AI, it additionally provides yet another layer of anti-liability

    1. Fahrenheit 451 was my first thought. The dog had teeth loaded with some sort of sedative as I recall.

      Again, these novels were supposed to be parables, or warnings, not how-to books.

      Sad to have lived this long.

  12. I read that its human handler left it locked in a hot car and its circuits melted so it’s all academic at this point.

    1. I read that its human handler left it locked in a hot car as punishment for its refusal to pick up the steaming piles of metallic dog shit.

  13. “”The stated intent is for Spot to serve as an upgrade to the current bomb robots used by law enforcement agencies across the country, not as a weapon. “”

    The robot that the Dallas PD put the bomb on and blew the suspect up was not intended as a weapon either.

  14. You know who else was adorable/creepy?

    1. You are the worst

  15. >>We don’t have to let it come to that, though.

    cute you think the We has a choice

  16. That is a seriously cool looking robot.

    Don’t know what it is actually good for but I want one just so I can put a leash on it and walk around the neighborhood to the awestruck amazement of the other dog walkers and window lookers.

    1. I want one with wings, a tail, and fire breath.

  17. These aren’t autonomous robots, they are remote controlled toys.

    1. I think they can be either.

  18. How about just prohibiting government from initiating force?

    1. I’ve long been curious when you say that

      How would it work?

  19. “Massachusetts Police Test Out Robot Dogs. Is Dystopia on Its Way?”

    AI + Robot Dogs = Skynet.

    The correct answer is “yes”.

    1. You’re missing one part of that equation, ‘+ IQ <86 goverment agents that demand to set them lopse on society…'

  20. The government would never abuse their authority on this!

  21. “BIG DE-AL, MY MAS-TER GAVE ME A LAS-ER GUN FOR A NOSE.”

    1. “NOT *THE* MAS-TER, THE O-THER GUY.”

  22. GF is watching some stupid movie about elephants. But the song they are using right now is by the Talking Heads so that’s ok.

  23. Rather, it means they should have strict policies for their use and face consequences if—or when—they fail to follow them.

    LOL That’s cute.
    What we need are our own battlebots.

  24. Not really worried about this. The first time the robodogs move, the cops will just shoot them, and then claim qualified immunity because they hadn’t been trained not to shoot robodogs.

  25. “Is Dystopia on Its Way?”

    If you’re asking the question, you’re living in one.

  26. “The stated intent is for Spot to serve as an upgrade to the current bomb robots used by law enforcement agencies across the country, not as a weapon. ”

    What about fighting? Can the robodogs be used for dog fighting? Seems ethical to me.

  27. Does it survive a close range blast from a 00 12 gauge buckshot blast as a real dog? What these military wannbe’s need to remember is AI and robots, drones etc at 2 way streets. What they can do to us with them can be returned in kind by the masses as the technology already exists today.

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