A group of robotics companies including Boston Dynamics — makers of the well-known quadrupedal robot Spot — have pledged not to weaponize their most advanced robots. However, the pledge will likely do little to stop the wider weaponization of this technology.
In an open letter addressed to the entire robotics industries (and first reported by Axios), the companies said they “believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated ... raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues.”
“We pledge that we will not weaponize 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,” say the letter’s signatories: Boston Dynamics, Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics, and Unitree Robotics.
The letter comes as fears have increased about how militaries and law enforcement will deploy a new breed of highly-mobile and autonomous robot developed in recent years. These include quadrupedal bots (like those built by Boston Dynamics, ANYbotics, and Unitree) and bipedal machines (like the Digit robot, built by Agility Robotics).
Boston Dynamics, which is owned by Hyundai, has come under particular scrutiny as maker of the most recognizable quadrupedal robot, Spot. The company’s robots have also been trialed for use by police departments (including, unsuccessfully, by the NYPD) and by the French military. In both cases, the robots were not weaponized, but were instead used for reconnaissance while being controlled remotely by humans.
Notably, Boston Dynamics’ early development was thanks almost entirely to US military funding. The US Army thought it could use the company’s experimental, larger robots as pack mules, toting equipment for infantry troops. But it scrapped their development because the machines were too noisy, and Boston Dynamics pivoted to commercial sales.
The letter’s signatories do not take issue with “existing technologies”
The open letter published this week does not rule out these sorts of applications. “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,” it states. The letter only pledges not to weaponize robots, and certainly leaves open the possibility of the machines being used for surveillance and reconnaissance alongside army units or police officers.
Notably, the letter’s signatories do not include US firm Ghost Robotics, which also makes quadrupedal bots, and has focused on military and government sales. The company’s bots are being tested by both the US Space Force and US Air Force to patrol bases, and by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to patrol the US border with Mexico. Ghost Robotics’ machines have also been fitted with guns by arms manufacturers, and the company’s CEO, Jiren Parikh, has said the firm never tries to restrict customers’ uses.
“Because we’re selling to the military, we don’t know what they do with them,” Parikh told TechCrunch. “We’re not going to dictate to our government customers how they use the robots. We do draw the line on where they’re sold. We only sell to U.S. and allied governments.”
This means that while Boston Dynamics and the other signatories to this week’s letter may have stopped one avenue for robot weaponization, it’s not likely to affect the broader adoption of this technology.
You can read the letter in full below:
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.