Robot makers including Boston Dynamics pledge not to weaponize their creations

A group of robotics companies including Boston Dynamics — makers of the well-known quadrupedal robot Spot — have pledged not to weaponize their most advanced robots. However, the pledge will likely do little to stop the wider weaponization of this technology.

In an open letter addressed to the entire robotics industries (and first reported by Axios), the companies said they “believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated … raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues.”

“We pledge that we will not weaponize our advanced-mobility general-purpose robots or the software we develop that enables advanced robotics and we will not support others to do so,” say the letter’s signatories: Boston Dynamics, Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics, and Unitree Robotics.

The letter comes as fears have increased 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 (like those built by Boston Dynamics, ANYbotics, and Unitree) and bipedal machines (like the Digit robot, built by Agility Robotics).

Boston Dynamics, which is owned by Hyundai, has come under particular scrutiny as maker of the most recognizable quadrupedal robot, Spot. The company’s robots have also been trialed for use by police departments (including, unsuccessfully, by the NYPD) and by the French military. In both cases, the robots were not weaponized, but were instead used for reconnaissance while being controlled remotely by humans.

Notably, Boston Dynamics’ early development was thanks almost entirely to US military funding. The US Army thought it could use the company’s experimental, larger robots as pack mules, toting equipment for infantry troops. But it scrapped their 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 open the possibility of the machines being used for surveillance and reconnaissance alongside army units or police officers.

Notably, the letter’s signatories do not include US firm Ghost Robotics, which also makes quadrupedal bots, and has focused on military and government sales. The company’s bots are being tested by both the US Space Force and US Air Force to patrol bases, and by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to patrol the US 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 selling to the military, we don’t know what they do with them,” Parikh told TechCrunch. “We’re not going to dictate to our government customers how they use the robots. We do draw the line on where they’re sold. We only sell to U.S. and allied governments.”

This means that while Boston Dynamics and the other signatories to this week’s letter may have stopped one avenue for robot weaponization, it’s not likely to affect the broader adoption of this technology.