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6 robot makers just promised not to weaponize their tech to ‘threaten, harm, or intimidate’

October 7, 2022, 10:00 PM UTC
A robot dog from Boston Dynamics.
Jonas Walzberg—Getty Images

Will robots be weaponized to take over the world? The answer, at least for several robot makers, is no. 

Boston Dynamics and five other companies on Thursday signed a pledge promising not to weaponize their general-purpose robots.

“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,” the companies wrote in an open letter, first reported by Axios.

Boston Dynamics was joined in the pledge by Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics, and Unitree. Other companies are encouraged to follow suit.

“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,” says the letter.

The group cited the possibility of “untrustworthy people” misusing their products to “invade civil rights or to threaten, harm, or intimidate others.” They also promised to carefully review how customers intend to use the robots. 

Boston Dynamics’s robots, which have gained attention on social media for their choreographed dance routines and ability to perform parkour, have been pitched for certain military uses, including remote inspection of hazardous environments, rescue operations, or logistics operations, according to the company. 

However, the bots are typically sold for commercial and industrial use, and for research. Police forces and fire departments also use the company’s robot dog, Spot, to send into risky places so that they can scope out the situation.  

The selling point for customers, according to Boston Dynamics, is that the robots perform tasks better and more safely than humans can. The company says the technology is not designed for surveillance or to replace human law enforcement officers. 

Spot’s use in public has faced backlash previously. In 2021, the New York Police Department canceled a $94,000 lease with Boston Dynamics for Spot after public outcry about privacy overly aggressive displays of force by law enforcement.

Boston Dynamics has a history of developing robots for the U.S. military, landing a nearly $10 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2012. Google, SoftBank, and Hyundai later invested in the Massachusetts-based company and pushed it to create robots for commercial uses, according to CNBC

In the joint letter this week, Boston Dynamics and the other robotics companies said they are convinced the “benefits for humanity” of their robots “strongly outweigh the risk of misuse.” However, they said they published the letter with a renewed sense or urgency “caused by a small number of people who have visibly publicized their makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots.”

According to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the pledge the companies signed “does not rule out future cooperation or collaboration with militaries or the defence sector.” Last year, the group cited Hyundai’s ownership of Boston Dynamics, pointing to the automaker’s development of unmanned weapon systems, tanks, and other types of armored vehicles through its Hyundai Rotem subsidiary.

“This pledge appears to apply only to ‘advanced mobility general-purpose robots and related software’,” the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots wrote on its website following the announcement on Thursday. 

In the joint letter, the robotics companies said they didn’t necessarily oppose weaponized robots. They still see a use for them, just not by private citizens and companies. “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.”

Last week, billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the electric automaker’s prototype for its new long-awaited humanoid robot, dubbed Optimus. Tesla did not sign the latest anti-weaponization pledge.

Another company that didn’t sign the pledge was Ghost Robotics, which partnered with the Department of Homeland Security in February to deploy robots that patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. 

As far as wars go, there are no rules barring the use of killer robots on the battlefield. Last year, a United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons declined to ban the use and development of so-called slaughterbots following objections by countries working on these technologies, including the U.S, the United Kingdom, and Russia, according to CNBC.

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