A pack of international news outlets over the past few days have reported the abandonment by the US Department of Defence 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 warfighting companion stumbled over a mundane but apparently intractable problem – noise. Powered by a gas (petrol) motor likened to a lawnmower in sound, the robot’s capacity for carrying heavy loads (400 lbs or 181.4kg), and its much celebrated ability to navigate rough terrain and right itself after falling (or be easily assisted in doing so), in the end were not enough to make up for the fact that, in the assessment of the US Marines who tested the robot, the LS3 was simply ‘too loud’ (BBC News 30 January 2015). The trial’s inescapable conclusion was that the noise would reveal a unit’s presence and position, bringing more danger than aid to the U.S. warfighters that it was deployed to support.
A second concern contributing to the DoD’s decision was the question of the machine’s maintenance and repair. Long ignored in narratives about technological progress, the place of essential practices of inventive maintenance and repair has recently become a central topic in social studies of science and technology (see Steven J. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot, eds. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society. MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 2014.). These studies are part of a wider project of recognizing the myriad forms of invisible labour that are essential conditions for keeping machines working – one of the enduring continuities in the history of technology.
The LS3 trials were run by the Marine’s Warfighting Lab, most recently at Kahuku Training Area in Hawaii during the Rim of the Pacific exercise in July of 2014. Kyle Olson, spokesperson for the Lab, reported that seeing the robot’s potential was challenging “because of the limitations of the robot itself.” This phrasing is noteworthy, as the robot itself – the actual material technology – interrupts the progressive elaboration of the promise that keeps investment in place. According to the Guardian report (30 December 2015) both ‘Big Dog’ and ‘Spot,’ an electrically powered and therefore quieter but significantly smaller prototype, are now in storage, with no future experiments planned.
The cessation of the DoD investment will presumably come as a relief to Google, which acquired Boston Dynamics in 2013, saying at the time that it planned to move away from the military contracts that it inherited with the acquisition. Boston Dynamics will now, we can assume, turn its prodigious ingenuity in electrical and mechanical engineering to other tasks of automation, most obviously in manufacturing. The automation of industrial labour has, somewhat ironically given its status as the original site for robotics, recently been proclaimed to be robotics’ next frontier. While both the BBC and Guardian offer links to a 2013 story about the great plans that accompanied Google’s investments in robotics, more recent reports characterize the status of the initiative (internally named ‘Replicant’) as “in flux,” and its goal of producing a consumer robot by 2020 as in question (Business Insider November 8, 2015). This follows the departure of former Google VP Andy Rubin in 2014 (to launch his own company with the extraordinary name ‘Playground Global’), just a year after he was hailed as the great visionary leader who would turn Google’s much celebrated acquisition of a suite of robotics companies into a unified effort. Having joined Google in 2005, when the latter acquired his smartphone company Android, Rubin was assigned to the leadership of Google’s robotics division by co-founder Larry Page. According to Business Insider’s Jillian D’Onfro, Page
had a broad vision of creating general-purpose bots that could cook, take care of the elderly, or build other machines, but the actual specifics of Replicant’s efforts were all entrusted to Rubin. Rubin has said that Page gave him a free hand to run the robotics effort as he wanted, and the company spent an estimated $50 million to $90 million on eight wide-ranging acquisitions before the end of 2013.
The unifying vision apparently left with Rubin, who has yet to be replaced. D’Onfro continues:
One former high-ranking Google executive says the robot group is a “mess that hasn’t been cleaned up yet.” The robot group is a collection of individual companies “who didn’t know or care about each other, who were all in research in different areas,” the person says. “I would never want that job.”
So another reality that ‘bites back’ is added to those that make up the robot itself; that is, the alignment of the humans engaged in its creation. Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics’ attempt to position itself on the entertainment side of the military-entertainment complex this holiday season was met less with amusement than alarm, as media coverage characterized it variously as ‘creepy’ and ‘nightmarish.’
Resistance, it seems, is not entirely futile.