Let’s talk about attaching weapons to the backs of robots. I’m not a fan (how’s that to take a stand?). When MSCHF did it with Spot in February, it was a thought experiment, an art exhibit, and a statement on where the company could go with autonomous robotics. And most important, of course, was a paintball gun. Boston Dynamics was clearly not thrilled with the message it was sending, noting:
Today we learned that an arts group is planning a show to draw attention to a provocative use of our industrial robot, Spot. To be clear, we condemn portraying our technology in a way that encourages violence, harm or intimidation.
This is precisely the sort of thing that the company is trying to cope with. After decades of killer robot science fiction, it doesn’t take much to startle people every time an advanced robot comes into the picture. This is the automaton version of rule 34 (in defiance of Asimov’s first law of robotics): if a robot exists, someone has tried to turn it into a weapon.
Like I said in that same column, I’m glad we’re having these conversations now, and I’m glad people are skeptical when the NYPD releases a branded version of Spot. I also think it’s important to note, for example, that law enforcement agencies have used robots for years to perform dangerous tasks like detecting bombs. A majority of us would probably agree that saving people from the explosion is a good use of a robot.
I’m glad Boston Dynamics continues to voice its opposition to using the robot to harm (what constitutes bullying, when it comes to headless quadrupedal robots, is another conversation). The makers of Spot, as well as a broad spectrum of the robotics industry, have cut their teeth in DARPA-funded projects. I’d say there’s a pretty big gap between building a robotic mule and a mobile weapon, but these are precisely the kinds of things you need to fit into a mission statement.
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For that Ghost Robotics dog on display at the US Army Association convention in Washington this week, I’d say bullying is probably the best of times. I’ll let the rifle manufacturer, SWORD Defense Systems, speak for themselves here:
The SWORD Defense Systems Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle (SPUR) has been specially designed to deliver precision shooting from unmanned platforms such as the Ghost Robotics Vision-60 quadruped. Featuring safety, chamber, clearance and firing capabilities that allow for safe and reliable deployment of the weapon system – providing the operator with the ability to load and secure the weapon from a distance.
If that doesn’t send a cold chill down your spine, I don’t know what to tell you. Is it ethically so far removed from the attack drones that the military has been using for bombing campaigns for decades now? Potentially no. But I’m not a fan of drone strikes either.
Ghost Robotics certainly cannot be accused of obscuring its military connection. A soldier walking around with the Ghost Vision system is the first thing you see when you visit the company’s site. No matter how you think about the DoD budget, defense funding has always played a big role in keeping robotics companies afloat, long before VCs pumped money into the category. The Ghost site breaks things down into Defense, Homeland, and Business. A recent high-profile 5G deal with Verizon falls under the latter.
Recent coverage has highlighted the use of robotic dogs to patrol war zones, which is no different than the functionality of Spot in this case. But mounting a weapon on the robot dramatically changes the math here. There are a lot of questions – I contacted Ghost Robotics with some preliminary questions. But this is surely not the last we will hear about this setup.
In the non-unmanned rifle news, Dexterity continues to make waves with another big boost. Just over a year after coming out of stealth with $ 56.2 million, the bay area-based company is clearly striking as the iron is hot as interest in automated execution has grown during the pandemic. Four years after its launch, it has just raised an additional $ 140 million for a valuation of $ 1.4 billion.
The company has been operating its systems in the real world for two years now, moving a wide range of different objects, including ‘deformable bulk-packed poly bags, delicate hot dog buns, soft tortillas, boxes. poorly sealed cardboard bags, earthworm bags, food trays and crates, even a molten birthday cake. Dexterity plans to use the money to continue the deployment of its first thousand robots.
To close this week, the Yanmar YV01, an autonomous spraying robot specially designed for vines.
“YV01 offers state-of-the-art stand-alone technology and is flexible, lightweight and environmentally friendly as it provides very precise spraying on the vines,” Yanmar Europe President Peter Aarsen said in a statement. “It can be used safely and simply by a supervisor nearby and is ideal for vineyards that have narrow paths and where the vines are not tall.”
Currently being tested in (where else) Épernay, producer of Champagne, in France, the system will go on sale next year.