Don’t kick the Dog

A chaff of media stories entitled ‘Running Robot is Faster than Usain Bolt’ (or close variations) in the past week announce the unveiling of Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot, developed with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Invoking the name (as well as the persona and body) of the world record-breaking Jamaican sprinter who was the star of the recent London Olympics, these headlines suggest that a humanoid has for the first time outrun the fastest human. Closer inspection reveals that the Cheetah’s sprint occurred on a treadmill, with the robot tethered to the hydraulic pump that ensures its energy. In the genre of media proclamations of the arrival of artificial intelligence in 1997, on the occasion of Deep Blue’s chess victory over world champion Gary Kasparov, the headlines obscure the differences between robotic and human accomplishments, as well as the extensive networks of associated people and technologies that make those accomplishments possible.

Taken on its own terms the Cheetah is unquestionably a remarkable machine, one of an extended family of masterfully engineered navigational robots created by Boston Dynamics over the past two decades. Inspired by nature, according to their designers, these robots are characterized by their uncanny resemblances to familiar animal figures and gaits – a resemblance that inspires a mix of affection and horror in the robots’ many commentators.  I find myself experiencing more the latter in my own response to the video demonstrations of BigDog and other Boston Dynamics robots that densely populate YouTube.  For some time now I’ve wanted to try to articulate the basis for my reaction, less one of horror perhaps than of distress.

There’s no question that the distress begins with the plan for these machines’ conscription to serve as beasts of burden (and perhaps inevitably, bearers of weaponry) for the U.S. Military.  The prospect of the appearance of BigDog and its kin in parts of the world distant from the Waltham warehouses of their creation, as part of the American military’s projection of force, further helps me to appreciate the latter’s invasive alienness and its attendant terrors for local populations. Coupled with this is the intensely technophilic, science fiction fantasies that inform these robots’ figuration as animate creatures, designed to inspire new forms of shock and awe. Combined with that ambition is the slavish subservience that the robots themselves materialize in concert with their human masters, exemplified in the act of kicking the robot that seems to be an obligatory element of every demonstration video, so that we can watch it stagger and right itself again. (As well as its explicit figuration as an animal – canine and/or insect – BigDog evokes for me the image of two stooped humans sharing a heavy load, one walking forward and one walking backwards.) More generally, I note the complete absence of any critical discussion of the wider context of these robots’ development, in service of the increasing automation of the so-called irregular warfare in which the United States is now interminably engaged.

I wonder in the end how, within a very different political environment and funding regime, the extraordinary technical achievements of Boston Dynamics might be configured differently.  This would require much greater imagination than currently inspires the field of robotics, as well as a radical change in our collective sense of what’s worth a headline.

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  • Simone  On September 13, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Inspired by this piece I popped over to Boston Dynamics U-Tube central and looked at Big Dog. First of all, after reading Lucy’s comments I could not get the image of two humans with a permanent load locked in place out of my head. Then I reacted to the sound and began to ask if this thing was being tested at Walden Pond – What is going on? Then I checked out the comments at the site which included (in addition to a few technologically charmed commentators) a healthy dose of people clearly aware that these clever inventions open the door to a major escalation of the effects of war.


    We’re all fucking dead.

  • Lucy Suchman  On September 13, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Dear Simone, at least as you point out there’s some diversity in the ‘we’ here, including all of us who don’t want these things to be done in our names, so some small bit of hope remains (okay yes, despite the disappointments of the last four years) …

  • Maggie  On September 15, 2012 at 9:41 am

    What bleak and cruel robots these are. I share your distress Lucy. There’s something about being beaten and made to work here which materialises the worst kinds of behaviours between humans.

    It made me think of the slave-like characteristics embedded in these versions of ‘care-robots’:

    under the title ‘Could remote crowdworking change how we care for our elderly?’

    Previously I have thought of care robots as pretty much unachievable in practice, but this seems a more realisable and therefore scary departure. That we outsource meaningless or fragmented tasks to humans who will supplement what the robots can’t manage/achieve.

    Here the companies mentioned, Microtask and Willow Garage (California) and Amazon (it seems), explicitly refer to robots as doing ‘huge, dull’ and ‘dirty’ tasks. These enable employers to ignore/subvert the minimum wage and to hire and fire workers at will.

    And see this:

    ‘By using Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s crowdworking platform which allows workers all over the world to remotely carry out small tasks for small cash rewards, they have made the first steps in what they eventually believe could be a way to outsource even the most delicate of tasks, such as caring for the elderly.’

    This is the first time I’ve seen so called care robots and the work they do, explicitly tied to outsourcing and cost cutting in this way. And see how Microtask makes profits by fragmenting the outsourced work (e.g. military and medical records) to such a degree that the task is totally (and this is the claim) stripped of meaning.

  • Arjun Kanuri  On May 2, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks for finally writing about >Dont kick the Dog | Robot Futures <Liked it!


  • […] reality of technological capabilities. Lucy Suchman’s blog, Robot Futures, has looked at numerous examples of such misconceptions. Nor is it unexpected that the terms “autonomous” and […]

  • By Humanizing humanity | Robot Futures on July 19, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    […] Reporter Martyn Williams writes today in PC World that since its purchase by Google, robot company Boston Dynamics’ funding from the US Defense Department has dropped from the $30 million/year range of the past […]

  • By Reality Bites | Robot Futures on December 30, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    […] of Boston Dynamic’s Legged Squad Support System or LS3 (aka ‘Big Dog’) and its offspring (see Don’t kick the Dog). After five years and USD $42 million in investment, what was promised to be a best in breed […]

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