Boston Dynamics Is Hoping Robot Dogs Are Less Creepy While Fighting Fire

Boston Dynamics Is Hoping Robot Dogs Are Less Creepy While Fighting Fire
Photo: Alejandro Martinez Velez/Europa Press, Getty Images

“Spot,” the nascent Terminator on four legs invented by Skynet, er, I mean, Boston Dynamics, has landed its next public safety gig: firefighter.

The New York Times reports that the city’s fire department has procured two of the $US75,000 ($104,115) quadrupeds and plans to deploy them “occasionally,” leveraging them in especially dangerous situations where it’s harder for human responders to deploy. The first fire agency in the country to do so, the FDNY wants to use the “dogs” on treacherous search and rescue missions, where they will allegedly help relay important situational data back to responders.

“I look forward to a positive and productive conversation with F.D.N.Y. leaders to ensure these robotic ‘dogs’ are only being used on rare, specialised, occasions with a goal of protecting our residents and first responders,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson, in a statement provided to the newspaper.

If this all sounds very familiar it’s because we’ve been here before, albeit with a different city agency. Back in early 2021, the Times reported that the New York Police Department would be one of the first police agencies in the country to deploy Spot (which the NYPD had renamed “Digidog”) for selective law enforcement missions.

And yet, only a few months into Digidog’s tenure, the Times reported that public backlash had forced the NYPD to return the mechanical canine to its kennel at Boston Dynamics. Adjectives like “creepy” and “dystopian” had dogged the unfortunate product, and, as it turned out, a lot of New Yorkers were uncomfortable with the idea of a quasi-sentient robot stalking around their neighbourhood — especially one that could quite easily be equipped with a remote-controlled gun turret.

Now, Boston Dynamics seems to be hoping that New Yorkers will find their metallic contraption more digestible if it’s assisting a different public agency — one with a decidedly better reputation.

But privacy advocates fear that deploying the robo-Rover — even in a limited capacity — could come with a slew of new concerns over how exactly it’ll be used. In an email to Gizmodo, Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, all but called the dog an expensive, invasive toy, one that might never actually get out of the garage.

“This is a costly surveillance gimmick that New Yorkers never needed, and it’s unclear if this latest doggy drone will ever be used,” Cahn told Gizmodo. “The FDNY rank and file have been calling for a pay rise, not new surveillance tech,” he added. Cahn also worries that data collected by the robot could fall into the hands of other agencies: “While I’m more inclined to trust the FDNY with new surveillance gear, there’s nothing to stop the NYPD from taking the data it collects,” he said. “At most, data from other city agencies is just a court order away from the NYPD, and often they only have to ask. If the FDNY wants to have its surveillance tech treated differently, then we need real protections against NYPD access to that information.”

You can certainly see the appeal of having robots do dangerous, dirty work so that humans don’t have to. But fears over whether these dogs will just be creepy spies seems legitimate, given that we once considered flying robots to be a horrifying dystopian fantasy and now you can barely go to a public park without having some teenager’s drone whiz by your head. We reached out to the New York Fire Department for comment on its recent litter of robots but a spokesperson said nobody was immediately available for comment.