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Armed and dangerous? Online art project takes aim at militarization of robotics

A group specializing in internet-friendly viral stunts is offering people the chance to take control of a futuristic weapon... sort of.
Image: MSCHF's quadraped robot Spot
In MSCHF’s latest art installation to demonstrate the dangers of weaponizing robots, users from around the world will have the opportunity to remote control a mobile quadruped robot with a paintball gun in a makeshift art gallery space.”MSCHF

An internet-enabled art installation that launched Wednesday offers a strange proposition: the chance to pilot a $75,000 four-legged robot named Spot that is armed with a paintball gun. 

The robot may be familiar to people who have seen various viral videos of similar robots from Boston Dynamics that have offered a sometimes startling glimpse at leaps in robotics technology. 

But they haven't seen it like this. 

“Obviously they’ve worked really hard in terms of their marketing team to kind of bridge this association of Spot the dog with cute internet videos," said Daniel Greenberg, the head of strategy and growth for MSCHF, a company that is something of a mixture of an art group and a brand that has become known for its viral internet stunts. "You see Spot dancing and it goes viral. You see Spot jumping rope and it goes viral."

Greenberg's project, "Spot's Rampage," isn't meant to make the robot seem cute. It's meant to be a statement about the militarization of robotics, complete with a digital portal to give people a firsthand view of what it's like to be in control of an armed machine.

“While that’s all nice and all, we think, or at least a lot of people on the internet have this consensus that it is going to be militarized," Greenberg said. "It is going to be used by police." 

MSCHF, pronounced "mischief," has made something of a habit of drumming up attention via projects on its website. In the last few years, several of its other pieces have gone viral, including a pair of Birkenstocks made from Hermes Birkin bags or Nike “Jesus shoes” filled with holy water.

The Spot project has already drawn a response from Boston Dynamics, the manufacturer of the robot.

In response to internet buzz ahead of MSCHF’s Wednesday event, Boston Dynamics issued a statement on its Twitter account saying: “To be clear, we condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation.”

Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives," the company added. "This art however, fundamentally misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.”

Boston Dynamics robots are not weaponized, but continued adoption of various types of machines including drones and other types of robots by militaries and police forces have caused alarm among technology watchdogs. And while science fiction has offered any number of fantastical examples of armed robots, a growing number of real-world examples illustrate how questions about the use of robotics by military and police forces are not entirely hypothetical. 

In a bit of auspicious timing, a Twitter user in New York captured video Tuesday of the New York City Police Department operating a quadruped robot in the Bronx that bears a striking resemblance to Boston Dynamics' Spot.

P.W. Singer, a strategist at the think tank New America and author of the book “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution," said the militarization of robotics is inevitable and needs to be subject to oversight.

“Any technology can be used for both good and ill purposes,” he said. “It is a technology that can clearly be deployed into war and law enforcement just like it can be deployed into, you know, everything from lawn care to construction.”

Singer said he thought MSCHF's project succeeded in forcing people to confront questions about militarized robots.

“Art is best when it provokes a conversation, when it makes you think, and they can certainly say ‘mission accomplished’ with that,” he said.

Just the fact that Boston Dynamics responded to their project made the whole drop worth it, Greenberg said. 

“The fact that Boston Dynamics tweeted about it and the fact that they’ve released public statements basically means that we did our job right,” he said. “Right, like if this was just some silly thing, they would have never talked about it.”