A robot dog by Boston Dynamics on show in Vietnam in July 2022  (Picture: Quang NGUYEN DUC/Alamy)
A robot dog by Boston Dynamics on show in Vietnam in July 2022 (Picture: Quang NGUYEN DUC/Alamy).
Technology

Robot dog manufacturers urge militaries not to weaponise the technology

A robot dog by Boston Dynamics on show in Vietnam in July 2022  (Picture: Quang NGUYEN DUC/Alamy)
A robot dog by Boston Dynamics on show in Vietnam in July 2022 (Picture: Quang NGUYEN DUC/Alamy).

Six companies that have created some of the world's most advanced, futuristic 'robot dogs' have written an open letter asking governments and nation-states not to arm their robots for military use.

The companies, including Boston Dynamics whose four-legged mechanical machine affectionately named Spot has featured heavily in viral posts across social media, signed the letter saying adding weapons to remotely or autonomously operated machines "raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues".

The companies have also pledged not to create weaponised versions for sale themselves.

Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics and Unitree Robotics also signed the letter. 

The letter reads: "As with any new technology offering new capabilities, the emergence of advanced mobile robots offers the possibility of misuse.

"Untrustworthy people could use them to invade civil rights or to threaten, harm, or intimidate others. One area of particular concern is weaponization."

Several of the world's militaries have already started looking at experimenting with similar walking robotic systems and how they could be used, while some nations have considered their capabilities for police forces.

Earlier this year, the British Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, for instance, announced it was set to become the first Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS)-enhanced brigade in the Army – including looking at the use of the robotic 'Ghost V60 quadruped' by American firm Ghost Robotics, which was not a signatory to the open letter.

The US government also announced in February 2022 that the Ghost Robotics V60 would be deployed to the US border with Mexico to tackle what it described as "non-environmental threats", and to "assist with enhancing the capabilities" of customs and border protection personnel.

Robot dogs have a multitude of uses, providing highly-mobile, mechanised, load-carrying capabilities which can walk and run, often on rough terrains or up and down stairways inside buildings.

There are reports that some versions are already getting additional accessories after sales, such as mounted assault rifles.

The six companies which signed the open letter are among the world leaders in such technology.

In the letter, they said: "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.

“For these reasons, we do not support the weaponization of our advanced-mobility general-purpose robots. For those of us who have spoken on this issue in the past, and those engaging for the first time, we now feel renewed urgency in light of the increasing public concern in recent months caused by a small number of people who have visibly publicized their makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots.

"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.

"When possible, we will carefully review our customers' intended applications to avoid potential weaponization. We also pledge to explore the development of technological features that could mitigate or reduce these risks.

"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."

The letter added: "We understand that our commitment alone is not enough to fully address these risks, and therefore we call on policymakers 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."

Robotic walking systems of this kind have found a variety of civilian uses, such as carrying out surveys of construction sites or using thermal imaging to scan equipment or facilities in factories for example, but they also have suggested applications such as surveillance for police forces, or reconnaissance and carrying loads.

As with other technologies, such as drones which have been armed for use in combat, as has been seen in Ukraine, there are other obvious potential uses for the world's militaries.

The companies' open letter ends on a positive note, saying: "We are convinced that the benefits for humanity of these technologies strongly outweigh the risk of misuse, and we are excited about a bright future in which humans and robots work side by side to tackle some of the world's challenges."