By Marie Danielle R. Sisican
Atherton International School
Below is a winning essay from The Herald-Pioneer Essay Contest. -- Ed.
A service dog trained to help the disabled; a watchdog trained to guard property; an attack dog trained to denounce threats—these canine companions are trusted only to do what their owner trains them to do. But what are robot dogs programmed for? Robot dogs—Boston Dynamics' Spot being the most well-known—are a mobile quadruped robot able to traverse various terrains and perform a diverse range of tasks, from thermal inspections to site analysis. Due to mainstream media coverage and exposure by some of the internet’s prominent niche content creators, more attention has been brought to these robots and their capabilities outside of entertainment. Decades worth of developments in the scientific and technological fields have paved the way for innovations such as the robot dog; but these innovations may either be a boon or bane for society according to how humans and institutions utilise them. According to CNBC, robot dogs have found purpose in companies as inspectors and are assigned risky tasks in place of humans to increase productivity and efficiency in the workplace (2021). With their build, mapping and navigation skills, limitless data capture, and situational analytical abilities, they can be a vital tool in search and rescue efforts (Robot Dogs Now Using LiDAR for Search and Rescue, 2022). Unfortunately, as with all new tech advancements, there comes a haunting shadow: the military has found a way to weaponize these robots (Novak, 2022)—a probable genesis to a form of modern war strategy of deploying high-tech machinery to wreak havoc upon enemies.
Robot dogs’ common real-life applications are in routine inspections and monitoring. One of its key features is the ability to input code for the robot to follow, meaning any task required during an inspection can be encoded into its software and commands will be autonomously executed. Furthermore, quadrupeds can easily operate around human work environments such as stairs and lifts. According to research by Tom Scott, Energy Robotics, a company in Western Austria, has been testing Boston Dynamic robot dogs to do inspections in a hydroelectric power plant (2021). They encode instructions into the robot’s software to do specific tasks and react to issues such as temperature readings and the reporting of abnormalities. A ‘Man Down Detector’ is in development wherein the robot alerts workers when it detects someone lying on the ground (Tom Scott, 2021). This test is to prepare robot dogs to perform inspections in hazardous or toxic environments that jeopardise human safety. These robots can mitigate avoidable risks and safety issues, and maintain the well-being of workers. Companies with employee shortages should ensure the welfare of their workers and fully optimise their time. In Germany, around 8,000 substations need routine inspections, but there aren’t enough engineers available—increasing the demand for robots to perform inspections instead (Tom Scott, 2021). While robot dogs fulfil time-consuming or miscellaneous tasks, workers can focus on more important matters. This effectively increases productivity and efficiency in the workplace. However, this poses a problem in places with high unemployment rates as robots fulfil mundane roles in jobs.
In a high-stakes environment where lives are threatened, a robot dog would be helpful. Recently, they’ve been using Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) sensing, a type of remote sensing method that can produce highly-detailed topographical maps of landscapes (Robot Dogs Now Using LiDAR for Search and Rescue, 2022). Robot dogs can also perform site documentation and digital twin creations where they can produce digital copies after scanning a site. Reported by New York Times, in March 2022, two robot dogs joined the New York Fire Department to help in precarious search and rescue missions (Marcius, 2022). With their navigation, situational analytical skills, resilient material, speed, and mobility; these remarkable dogs can quickly scout areas fatal for humans to enter, such as a fire or a fallen building. However, there have been concerns of privacy and unsolicited surveillance as robot dogs store mapping data and documentation of the public—which can be exploited by entities or the government.
Government militaries have been exploring the weaponization of robot dogs, inciting fear of the future of war. In October 2022, China Krestel Defence Company uploaded a video on Weibo revealing a drone dropping off cargo that unfurled to reveal a robot dog, the war dog, with a machine gun attached to its back. Shortly after, Ghost Robotics showcased their gun-mounted robot dog, the Quadruped Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGVs) at the Association of the United States Army's annual conference (Saballa, 2021). In a now privated Youtube video, a Russian tech entrepreneur uploaded a video of his robot, Skynet, back in July 2022. All these robots appear similar to Boston Dynamics’ Spot despite the company being uninvolved. Recently, in an open letter to the robotics industry, Boston Dynamics and five of the world’s leading robotics companies (Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics, and Unitree) unanimously pledged to never weaponize their robots or software, to carefully review the possible applications of their products to avoid potential weaponization, and to explore ways to mitigate the risks of weaponization (Boston Dynamics et al., 2022). This pledge acknowledges our responsibility in the creation of technology and how our oversight of its applications have dire consequences. But this isn’t enough to stop the militarization of robot dogs. Regardless of the message conveyed about reducing the risk of lethal cutting-edge weaponry, France still utilised Spot in their reconnaissance drills (Quand L’EMIA Part Au Combat Avec Des Robots Terrestres Dont Le Nouveau ULTRO De Nexter, 2021). Even with regulations and mitigation efforts, it only takes the paranoia and megalomaniac selfishness of one world leader to deploy these near-indestructible, manoeuvrable, agile robots in grotesque new theatres of war.
Ultimately, as shown from recent industrial, commercial, and military applications of robot dogs, these robots, like all technology, are potentially a force for good and evil. However, it’s how we utilise them and mitigate the risks of weaponry that dictate whether they destroy or develop human societies. Albeit understandably disturbing, we shouldn’t let the weaponization of robot dogs hinder the development of technology in its potential to improve human life. Robot dogs can be optimally applied in healthcare, education, and scientific advancement. Adding a camera or a gun doesn’t limit the robot’s capacity to be of invaluable service to the livelihood of future communities. We've already successfully programmed them to do multifarious functions; all that’s left on our part is to demonstrate responsible creativity.
* The competition was mutually organized by The Korea Herald and Pioneer Academics. This essay was submitted to and selected by the Pioneer Academics Research Program, the world’s only fully-accredited online research program for high school students. The essay was reviewed by Mr. Brian Cooper, who was the former the director of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), and currently leads the Research & Development department at Pioneer Academics. The Pioneer Academics Research Program has world’s only online academic system that is trusted and recognized by the most selective universities and colleges.