Technology, the Future, and Mechanised Oppression

Daniel Esson 21 April 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Web Summit on Flickr, 'Spot' at the Web Summit 2019

Over the past few years, many of us will have at some point been exposed to the work of Boston Dynamics. I first beheld the MIT-offshoots robots in amusing videos of technicians kicking around their quadrupedal creations to test their balance correction or tormenting their bipedal bots with hockey sticks. However, the dark potential of these machines has been made obvious as of late, with the New York Police Department now owning one, and concerns rightly raised about the likelihood of their usage as surveillance devices. Of all the technological advancements of the last few years, this one stands out as one of the most worrying.

Despite the NYPD's new mechanical canine garnering significant attention, the Boston Dynamics robot, officially designated Spot, saw usage by American police departments a couple of years ago, most notably with the Massachusetts state police, of which there is a video of it opening a door with its back-mounted appendage. Boston Dynamics actually have quite the track record with developing robots of this ilk.

In 2005, in cooperation with various other institutions and funding from the Defence Advanced Research Products Agency (DARPA), they developed BigDog, a hulking quadrupedal robot designed to be used as a pack animal by US military forces for transporting equipment. From 2009 until about 2015 they were designing, again with DARPA money, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), designed for a similar purpose to BigDog but more resistant to the elements, and with a design straight out of Halo. LS3 was eventually shelved due to its noisiness and difficulty traversing some landscapes. Regardless, what once seemed the domain of science fiction speculation has in fact been in development for years right under our noses.

The user manual for Spot lists ‘intentionally harming any person’ among potential misuses of the machine, but the company’s record of military-linked projects and recent implementation thereof by police departments suggests we should take this with a grain of salt. DARPA is the R&D agency of the US Department of Defence, with a long and illustrious history of developing cutting-edge technology for military purposes.

Boston Dynamics’ numerous DARPA-funded projects make very obvious the American military-industrial complex’s interest in the new frontier of robot technology, and the disclaimer attached to Spot seems a blatant attempt to secure plausible deniability, for when one of their machines inevitably hurts somebody, probably under the supervision of an American police department, Boston Dynamics can wash their hands of responsibility and claim the robot was not being used for its intended purpose. Anyone clever enough to be involved in designing a robot probably wouldn't think that DARPA funds their projects with entirely peaceful intentions.

You could of course ask; why worry about new technologies like this? Don’t technological advances bring the potential to improve people’s quality of life? Sure, if you’ve got the money for it. The aforementioned Spot is available to the public at the price of $74,500 (about £54,000), and as this technology gets ever more advanced, the price will rise. The obvious reality is that the technology, information and means of production in the budding robotics industry belong to those who already have wealth and power, and will almost definitely remain exclusively available to the wealthy for quite some time.

Those who have the money to send their children to private or international schools may be able to replace their au-pair with a robot to cut long-term costs or have a mechanical chef whip up Ottolenghi recipes for them, but the average working person’s first exposure to advanced robotic technology will likely be in the form of robotised surveillance devices or the heavy clunk of metallic bailiffs booting down their doors to reclaim payday loans. The blind faith that advancing technology and science will improve society as a whole is often an excuse to avoid solving problems by confronting questions of politics, economics and power, the root causes of all societal issues and the determining factor in all questions regarding technology.

The fact that this new generation of robots has been put into use by American police shouldn’t shock anybody. American police departments are, by and large, overfunded, heavily armed quasi-military organisations, capable of outright urban warfare – in 1985 the Philadelphia PD dropped an FBI-supplied Tovex bomb onto the headquarters of the radical leftist organisation MOVE, razing 65 houses to the ground.

Robots like Spot are capable of opening doors or serving drinks, why wouldn’t the armed forces of the American state use one that could fire a gun? True, there could be technical complications, and for now, robots can’t think on anything close to a human level, so they could be a liability, but rational choice seldom seems to factor into the decisions of the armed branches of the American state. It’s easy to imagine a future where the USA’s ventures abroad are increasingly mechanised, with atrocities committed against civilian populations while the victims don’t even see the thousand-yard stare and toothy grin of an all-American former high school quarterback, just cold grey steel.

The only cause for optimism on this front is that, despite the many obvious problems with British police, it seems unlikely they’ll implement this technology anytime soon, or at least we should hope not. All this may seem sensationalist, but to people born in the 1960s the level of technology we have now was likely unthinkable, and with ever-improving robots and brain-compatible microchips, all the worst elements of Black Mirror seem more real than ever. In our lifetimes we’ll no doubt see technology inconceivable now, and if we let it develop unchecked we may become even more clearly ruled by the creations of our own hands, rather than ruling over them.