Boston Dynamics, Agility and others pen letter condemning weaponized ‘general purpose’ robots

This morning, a group of prominent robotics firms issued an open letter condemning the weaponization of “general purpose” robots. Signed by Boston Dynamics, Agility, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics and Open Robotics, the letter notes, in part:

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. Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.

The piece comes amid mounting concern around the proliferation of advanced robotics systems like Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Agility’s Digit. Fictional works like “Black Mirror,” coupled with real-world efforts like the Ghost Robotics dog that has been outfitted with a sniper rifle, have raised significant red flags for many.

After an art collective mounted a paintball gun to the back of Spot, a Boston Dynamics rep told TechCrunch:

They came to us with the idea that they were going to do a creative project with Spot. They’re a creative group of guys, who have done a bunch of creative things. In our conversations, we said that if you want to cooperate with us, we want to make it clear that the robots will not be used in any way that hurts people.

Ghost Robotics, which has its own take on the topic, told TechCrunch at the time:

We don’t make the payloads. Are we going to promote and advertise any of these weapon systems? Probably not. That’s a tough one to answer. Because we’re selling to the military, we don’t know what they do with them. 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. We don’t even sell our robots to enterprise customers in adversarial markets. We get lots of inquiries about our robots in Russia and China. We don’t ship there, even for our enterprise customers.

Today’s open letter finds the signees pledging not to weaponize their systems, while calling on lawmakers to, “work with us to promote safe use of these robots and to prohibit their misuse. 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.”

The “general purpose” phrases affords some wiggle room for those companies working with the Defense Department and others to design robotics specifically for warfare purposes.