At least one future is here right now. The prankster art / marketing collective MSCHF recently spent $74,500 to purchase a Spot robo-dog from Boston Dynamics. It mounted a Tippmann 98 paintball gun on its back and is allowing people around the world to remotely control the bot via their phones in an art gallery filled with its own work for two minutes at a time. MSCHF is calling it Spot’s Rampage, and the event is happening on February 24th at 1PM ET. Quoth MSCHF’s latest manifesto:
When killer robots come to America they will be wrapped in fur, carrying a ball. Spot is Rob Rhinehart’s ideal pet: it never shits.
Good Boy, Spot! Everyone in this world takes one look at cute little Spot and knows: this thing will definitely be used by police and the military to murder people. And what do police departments have? Strong unions! Spot is employee of the month. You never need to union bust a robot – but a robot can union bust you.
Right! Boston Dynamics is not a fan. MSCHF says the company offered it another two Spot robots for free because it hated the idea. Naturally, there’s a tweet.
— Boston Dynamics (@BostonDynamics) February 20, 2021
The outrage feels a little off, doesn’t it? It doth protest too much, as it were. News stories over the last couple of years report that police departments have been testing these somewhat terrifying robot dogs to see if they’re useful out in the field. Which is to say: if your company is going to take funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop robots, don’t be surprised if people see potentially nefarious uses for the things it makes.
Anyway, controlling Spot is pretty fun. I got to test-drive the robot / paintball gun combo the other day, and I have to say that I, like everyone else who tested it, suddenly understood what it might feel like to be a drone pilot. Although it doesn’t do much. “We learned this shortly after getting it: everything you’ve ever seen in one of those Boston Dynamics videos is not really actually doable once you have it,” says MSCHF Swiss army knife Daniel Greenberg. “It really does nothing other than walk, to be totally honest.”
Nevertheless, the MSCHF folks agree that it’s utterly terrifying to see Spot walking around with a gun on its back. “It feels like five years from now, I could be walking around Brooklyn and just see one of these things with like a taser on it being controlled by the cops,” Greenberg says. “Who knows what the future holds?” (And yes, the group did test pilot their Spot on Brooklyn sidewalks; people stared.)
Though apparently it’s quite difficult to get a gun in New York where MSCHF is based — and yes, that even includes paintball guns. As one of the engineers who worked on the project points out: you can’t buy paintball guns on Amazon in NYC. The team ended up going to a combo scuba diving / paintball store to find the gun and ammunition.
The event is a one-time-only thing. “There’s no waitlist. There’s no paying. There’s no data collection beyond the site,” says Greenberg. “And it’s going to change drivers every two minutes. So if you’re on the site, and you’re lucky, great. If not, it is what it is.”
When I was controlling Spot, it felt almost exactly like playing a video game on a controller with two analog sticks. There was some lag, which was not terribly difficult to compensate for. If you’ve played any game on a controller since Sony introduced its DualShock controller, MSCHF’s UI will feel extremely familiar. Also familiar is that Spot comes with an end user license agreement.
“There is a danger that that Boston Dynamics might just shut it off,” says programmer Matthew Rayfield. “Just based on some of the documentation and policies, you have to sign to use this and get this, it seems that there are certain uses, including violent type stuff, that they don’t want it used for,” he continues. “And it does seem like reading that they have a kill switch that they might just flip.”
The MSCHF team has been working on this drop since October when they got their hands on the bot. Programming it is apparently quite user-friendly. Boston Dynamics has abstracted it enough that Rayfield says the hardest part was getting the paintball gun to work reliably.
My run ended after 10 minutes or so when the robot fell over on the gallery floor. (It was slippery with the paint from previous drivers.) The robot, they said, was stuck; it couldn’t get back up without human help.