Boston Dynamic, five robotics companies pledge not to weaponize their robots

The weaponization of our advanced general-purpose robots “raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues,” Boston Dynamics and five other leading robotics manufacturers say in their joint letter.
Boston Dynamics’ advanced dog-like robot Spot being tested alongside British Royal Air Force service members in August 2021. Photo credit: Public Domain

By OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | October 11, 2022

Advanced-mobility general-purpose robots that are more affordable, easy to operate, versatile, adaptable, and more accessible to the general public should not be weaponized, according to five leading robotics manufacturers.

In an open letter addressed to “the robotics industry and our communities”, issued last week, Boston Dynamics, Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics and Unitree Robotics stated that they are “dedicated to introducing new generations of advanced mobile robotics to society”. More importantly, the companies pledged to oppose the weaponization of these technologies.

The companies stated that the weaponization of their advanced robots harms the general public’s in robotic technologies and “raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues”. Their joint letter, titled “General Purpose Robots Should Not Be Weaponized,” reads:

One area of particular concern is weaponization. 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. For these reasons, we 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. When possible, we will carefully review our customers’ intended applications to avoid potential weaponization. We also pledge to explore the development of technological features that could mitigate or reduce these risks.

The robotics companies also called on policymakers, researchers and robot users to help them to promote the safe usage of their products.

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.

But, the companies added, “the benefits for humanity of these technologies strongly outweigh the risk of misuse” that prompted their joint letter and pledge in the first place. And, “a bright future in which humans and robots work side by side to tackle some of the world’s challenges” awaits.

Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, a Massachusetts-based American engineering and robotics design company, is a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Launched in 1992, the company has been previously been owned by Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, and Softbank, a Japanese multinational telecommunications and technology conglomerate. The Hyundai Motor Group purchased Boston Dynamics from Softbank in December 2020. The US$1.1 billion deal was finalized in 2021, giving Hyundai an 80 percent stake in the world’s leading robotics manufacturer.

In 2017, after Softbank’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics from Alphabet, then Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert stated that his company’s mission is “to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world,” according to The Verge.

In the past few years Boston Dynamics has created some of the world’s best-known advanced mobile robots. The company is a pioneer of the so-called robot dogs, which are four-legged dog-sized robots with life-like capabilities, including motion and avoiding obstacles.

Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, an unsuccessful rough-terrain quadruped military robot created for the U.S. military in 2005 was funded by U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Spot, a versatile dog-like robot unveiled in 2015, has been commercially-available in the U.S., Canada and the EU for about US$75,000 since June 2020. Boston Dynamics calls Spot “the agile robot that climbs stairs and traverses rough terrain with ease”.

“Untrustworthy people” and the question of public trust

In June 2020, Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development, Michael Perry, made assurances that his company would enforce a code of use prohibiting the misuse of its products.

“Perry says that Boston Dynamics will enforce a code of use for the robot: no weapon attachments and no use cases that can “harm or intimidate” people,” reported The Verge. “But like any firm selling its wares online, it has no real way of stopping malicious uses once the robot is out of its hands. This is true of many technologies, of course — from drones that are turned into remote bombs to 3D printers used to make untraceable firearms for criminals.”

In their letter, the robotics companies stated that, while their robots “will provide great benefit to society as co-workers in industry and companions in our homes,” they “now feel renewed urgency” to publicly pledge to opposed the weaponization of their robots. Why the renewed urgency? Creative bad actors. A “small number of people who have visibly publicized their makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots,” making the general public nervous.

According to the companies’ letter:

As with any new technology offering new capabilities, the emergence of advanced mobile robots offers the possibility of misuse. Untrustworthy people could use them to invade civil rights or to threaten, harm, or intimidate others.

“We are concerned about recent increases in makeshift efforts by individuals attempting to weaponize commercially available robots,” Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter told Axios in an e-mailed statement after the announcement of robotics companies’ pledge. “For this technology to be broadly accepted throughout society, the public needs to know they can trust it. And that means we need policy that prohibits bad actors from misusing it.”

According to a Boston Dynamics blog post, “a small number of people have threatened public trust in this technology with makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots. Adding weapons to robots that are widely available to the public and capable of navigating in locations where people live and work raises both serious risks of harm and ethical objections.”

As per The Robot Report:

In the last few months, unfortunately, there have been a number of viral videos that showcased individuals weaponizing various commercially-available robots. Some of the videos showed high-powered guns strapped onto legged robots, for example, and even detailed how they were retrofitted onto such systems.”

These are not the kinds of news stories a leading manufacturer of advanced, versatile robots would want to hear while trying establish or consolidate a consumer market for such products.

Below is the full text of the five leading robotics manufacturers’ letter:

An Open Letter to the Robotics Industry and our Communities,

General Purpose Robots Should Not Be Weaponized

We are some of the world’s leading companies dedicated to introducing new generations of advanced mobile robotics to society. These new generations of robots are more accessible, easier to operate, more autonomous, affordable, and adaptable than previous generations, and capable of navigating into locations previously inaccessible to automated or remotely-controlled technologies. We believe that advanced mobile robots will provide great benefit to society as co-workers in industry and companions in our homes.

As with any new technology offering new capabilities, the emergence of advanced mobile robots offers the possibility of misuse. Untrustworthy people could use them to invade civil rights or to threaten, harm, or intimidate others. One area of particular concern is weaponization. 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.

For these reasons, we do not support the weaponization of our advanced-mobility general-purpose robots. For those of us who have spoken on this issue in the past, and those engaging for the first time, we now feel renewed urgency in light of the 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.

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. When possible, we will carefully review our customers’ intended applications to avoid potential weaponization. We also pledge to explore the development of technological features that could mitigate or reduce these risks. To be clear, we are not taking issue with existing technologies that nations and their government agencies use to defend themselves and uphold their laws.

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. We are convinced that the benefits for humanity of these technologies strongly outweigh the risk of misuse, and we are excited about a bright future in which humans and robots work side by side to tackle some of the world’s challenges.

Signed,

Boston Dynamics
Agility Robotics
ANYbotics
Clearpath Robotics
Open Robotics
Unitree Robotics

Obert Madondo

Obert Madondo

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based digital artist, blogger, photographer, graphic designer, web designer, digital rights enthusiast, aspiring filmmaker, former political aide, former international development administrator, and online publisher. Obert is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Canadian Progressive, an independent political blog dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad