Police in the United States have quietly begun integrating advanced robots into officers’ ranks, raising alarm among civil liberties advocates and police watchdogs in the country.
Video of Boston Dynamics robots climbing stairs, carrying boxes, and doing basic parkour have long circulated around the internet, creeping out viewers with the lifelike motion of its humanoid robot model and it’s semi-autonomous four-legged robot “Spot”—a customizable bot which resembles a metal dog without a head that, understandably, some people call “terrifying.”
And now, radio station WBUR and the ACLU have discovered that the Massachusetts State Police have been leasing one of the Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs for use in its bomb squad.
Spot’s integration into the state police, which began in August, marks the very first time that such advanced robotics have been deployed within a civilian police force.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has been seeking official public records on the use of Spot in the police arsenal. The group believes that the robotic dogs, which can carry out such tasks like opening doors and clearing obstacles in high-risk environments, have already been put to use in live incidents.
However, many fear that the secretive introduction of such technology into police arsenals, along with their deadly potential in police encounters, can open the door to future abuses.
Kade Crockford, the director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told WBUR:
“We just really don’t know enough about how the state police are using this.
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.”
Police, however, have defended the use of Spot. Under their lease agreement with Boston Dynamics, the robot can’t be used to “physically harm or intimidate people.”
State police spokesman David Procopio said:
“Robot technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments.”
Boston Dynamics is a U.S.-based company that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Japanese investment conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp.
Earlier this year, Boston Dynamics announced that it would begin selling the so-called “nimble robot” Spot, which is depicted in promotional materials as serving a number of roles in varied environments, including on construction sites or as remote security guards.
Boston Dynamics vice president for business development Michael Perry said that Spot is mainly being used in situations that would pose a danger to human personnel. Perry explained:
“Right now, our primary interest is sending the robot into situations where you want to collect information in an environment where it’s too dangerous to send a person, but not actually physically interacting with the space.”
However, the ACLU is primarily worried not so much about Spot itself, but about a general absence of transparency—especially regarding the law enforcement agencies’ rules and policies surrounding the use of robots.
In a separate statement provided to TechCrunch, the ACLU said:
“There is a lot we do not know about how and where these robotics systems are currently deployed in Massachusetts.
All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react.
We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies.
We also need statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence.”