Robot makers like Boston Dynamics vowed not to weaponize their creations

A group of robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, is the maker of the well-known quadrupedal robot Spot. They have promised not to weaponize their most advanced robots.

However, the pledge will likely do little to stop the broader weaponization of this technology.

In an open letter addressed to the entire robotics industry, the companies said they “believe that adding weapons to remotely or autonomously operated robots raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues.”

The letter comes as fears 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 and bipedal machines.

Boston Dynamics, owned by Hyundai, has come under particular scrutiny as the maker of the most recognizable quadrupedal robot, Spot. However, the company’s robots have also been trialed for use by police departments and the French military. In both circumstances, the robots were not weaponized. They were instead used for reconnaissance while being controlled remotely by humans.

Boston Dynamics’ early development was thanks almost entirely to U.S. military funding. The U.S. Army thought it could use the company’s experimental, more giant robots as pack mules, toting equipment for infantry troops. But it scrapped its development because the machines were too noisy, and Boston Dynamics pivoted to commercial sales.

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 the possibility of the machines being used for surveillance and reconnaissance alongside army units or police officers.

The letter’s signatories do not include U.S. firm Ghost Robotics, which also makes quadrupedal bots, and has focused on military and government sales.

The company’s bots are being tested by the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force to patrol bases and by the Department of Homeland Security to patrol the U.S. 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 marketing to the military, we don’t understand what they do with them,” Parikh told TechCrunch. “We’re not going to dictate to our administrative customers how they employ the robots. However, we do draw the line on where they’re sold. We only market to U.S. and allied governments.”

While Boston Dynamics and the other signatories to this week’s letter may have blocked one avenue for robot weaponization, it’s not likely to impact the broader adoption of this technology.