Imagine seeing this thing coming through the door.
Massachusetts State Police (MSP) has been quietly testing ways to use the four-legged Boston Dynamics robot known as Spot, according to new documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. And while Spot isn’t equipped with a weapon just yet, the documents provide a terrifying peek at our RoboCop future.
The Spot robot, which was officially made available for lease to businesses last month, has been in use by MSP since at least April 2019 and has engaged in at least two police “incidents,” though it’s not clear what those incidents may have been. It’s also not clear whether the robots were being operated by a human controller or how much autonomous action the robots are allowed. MSP did not respond to Gizmodo’s emails on Monday morning.
The newly obtained documents, first reported by Ally Jarmanning at WBUR in Boston, include emails and contracts that shed some light on how police departments of the future may use robots to engage suspects without putting human police in harm’s way. In one document written by Lt. Robert G. Schumaker robots are described as an “invaluable component of tactical operations” that are vital to support the state’s “Homeland Security Strategy.”
Strangely, it appears that the relationship between Boston Dynamics and the Massachusetts State Police started through a personal connection, rather than a sales call. In one email from September 1, 2018, a member of the state police K-9 division explains to Lt. Schumaker that, “My friend is the current safety officer for Boston Dynamics and he suggested to the R&D team that they show Spot to law enforcement to obtain feedback for development and marketing to the Law enforcement community.”
Spot has a rechargeable and replaceable battery that lasts for 90 minutes and 360-degree video capabilities, along with plenty of other various sensors. Spot has a max speed of 3 mph and a max payload of about 30 pounds. The dog-like robot can even open doors with a special arm that extends from the robot’s “head.”
The agreement between Boston Dynamics and MSP also includes plenty of curious provisions, including a line stating that the police department is forbidden from posting public photos of the robot. In fact, the agreement says that Massachusetts State Police weren’t even allowed to take photos of Spot. But that didn’t stop Boston Dynamics from showing its own video of Spot being used by MPD at a conference from earlier this year.
Obviously we’re on the cusp of something new here as robots, autonomous or otherwise, start following cops around and go knocking on doors. The next step will surely be putting weapons on these things.
The question that remains is whether the American public will simply accept robocops as our reality now. Unfortunately, it seems like we may not have any choice in the matter—especially when the only way that we can learn about this new robot-police partnership is through records requests by the ACLU. And even then, we’re still largely in the dark about how these things will be used.