Should We Give Robots Paintball Guns?
MSCHF’s plans to let consumers control Spot and a paintball gun (aka ‘Spot’s Rampage’) could be an inflection point
I’m not afraid of robots, not at least in the same way I fear humankind and its potential for administering pain and suffering. Even so, I understand the concern surrounding MSCHF’s latest bit of mischief: putting a paintball gun on the back of one of Boston Dynamic’s Spot quadruped robots.
I track Spot updates closely, and yet I missed this one. It wasn’t until I saw a Twitter post from my former PCMag colleague and current TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater that I learned about MSCHF’s audacious plan: attach a paintball gun to the back of Spot and let online viewers remote-control its path and shooting activity through a Brooklyn-based faux art gallery. Heater’s article has a lot more details about the event and some insight on what it’s like to pilot Spot.
A paintball gun is marginally a weapon, but it’s now clear to me and Heater that MSCHF’s aim is to “weaponize” Spot and make some sort of statement about the dangers of semi-autonomous robots and their use in war and, maybe, law enforcement. Plus, calling the event “Spot’s Rampage” puts too fine a point on their intentions.
Last week, Boston Dynamics made it clear in a Twitter post that the company isn’t happy with MSCHF’s plans and that they may run afoul of its terms of sale. Heater told me during a Clubhouse chat that Boston Dynamics speaks to potential customers about the acceptable use of its $74,500 robots. Also, if customers choose to misuse the robots, the company can, Heater told me, stop servicing them or, possibly, brick the Spot through an over-the-air software update.
A paintball-wielding robot is not the image Boston Dynamics wants out there in the wild. I’ve watched, I think, virtually every Boston Dynamics Spot robot video the company has produced. Most are informational; many are entertaining. Boston Dynamics may not appreciate a potentially violent Spot clip, but it has no problem abusing its robots or anthropomorphizing the yellow bot. Its most recent “Do You Love Me?” dance number video paired Spot with a Boston Dynamics bipedal robot and made you believe there are more than gears, programming, and electricity inside these automatons.
It’s also worth remembering that weaponized robots are nothing new. Heater and I talked about how the U.S. government has used drones (flying robots) to kill people. I reminded him that they’re all remote control, and that, as far as I know, the army is not okay with autonomous executions. There are stories of A.I.-powered systems being used in assassinations, and I know that hobbyists have been attaching guns to robots for years. What MSCHF has planned for Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET seems tame by comparison.
Still, Boston Dynamics could try to stop MSCHF, and I think that would be a shame. In my opinion, robot and MSCHF fans using Paintball Spot to splatter cheap art could spark an important conversation. Boston Dynamics could hold a town hall on Clubhouse (or Twitter Spaces) right after the event to talk through implications.
The company could ask participants to describe their experiences. MSCHF could talk through gathered telemetry, and Boston Dynamics could talk about safeguards it already has in place to ensure Spot is never truly weaponized.
If MSCHF doesn’t get to go through with the event, it’ll still be a win on the PR front, but it’ll be a loss for Boston Dynamics. Shine a light on this, because darkness will only generate more robot fears.