Boston Dynamics’ freaky little robot dog Spot has made a lot of news recently. Earlier this week, the NYPD sent its Spot into a building in the Bronx to investigate a burglary, and stressed out a whole neighborhood. On Wednesday, art collective MSCHF turned its Spot’s controls over to the public for an art demonstration involving a paintball gun strapped to its back.
Almost since the day Boston Dynamics started showing the world its menagerie of horrifying, fascinating humanoids and robo-dogs, we’ve feared them. Two years ago, I consulted with MMA coaches in the fine art of kicking that robot’s ass, to be better prepared for the day we do battle (I feel in my heart it will come). I said at the time that I firmly believed in my abilities to rock the bot into another timeline, and the more details that come out about its hardware and specs, I’m even more confident I’d win in a cage match.
Pretty much everything you’d ever need to know in order to opposition-research this punk’s physical form is online, in Boston Dynamics’ official Spot user manual, which has been online since it was made available for purchase by the public for $74,500 June.
On Twitter, @LenKusov pointed out some highlights from the manual, starting with the removable lithium-ion battery pack. (A lot of what you need to know is in the battery section of the manual.) They theorize that if you can flip the thing on its back or otherwise reach its underbelly, you could grab the battery pack’s handle and pull it out, disabling the robot. The whole thread reads like directions for taking out a machine in Horizon Zero Dawn, but that’s just the world we’re living these days.
“PSA: if you or someone nearby are being brutalized by a police Spot robot and can get a hand or something underneath, grab this handle and yank it forward,” LenKusov wrote. “This releases the battery, instantly disabling the robot. Keep your hands away from joints, Spot WILL crush your fingers.”
Helpfully, there’s a video for this, and it does look super easy to slide the battery pack out:
As several people mention in the replies to LenKusov, shooting or otherwise damaging that hefty lithium battery pack could make it explode—which is either very bad if you’re close-range, or exactly what you want if you’re somehow hitting it from a distance and trying for fireworks.
If you can get close enough to its cold metal ass, there are a couple buttons there: power, and “motor lockout,” which disables the moving parts of the pup in order to put your soft fleshy fingers on it to transport without getting crushed in the joints. “Fingers may break or get amputated if caught in joints while Spot’s motors are active,” according to the manual. In theory, one could jab those buttons to stop it mid-movement, although that’d not clear from the documentation—it says to engage motor lockout before handling, but doesn’t specify what happens if you try to put the safety on mid-attack or something. Try pressing both simultaneously and see if it takes a screenshot while you’re back there!
Spot also navigates optically, so throwing paint, dust, or a blanket on it would get the job done just as easily. Basically, you can watch the Black Mirror episode about murderous robot dogs as if it’s an educational documentary and you’d get the gist. That plot was inspired by Boston Dynamics’ quadruped from 2005, the 240-pound “BigDog,” so it’s not even that much of a leap to say it’s instructional.
If your everyday threat model includes the possibility of a Spot encounter more than most people, carrying a Wi-Fi jammer with you everywhere might not be a bad idea, either. Spot’s controlled over Wi-Fi, and blocking those signals would keep the operator from siccing it on you.
But of course, Boston Dynamics would never condone its creature being used for violence, and the Spot isn’t a combat weapon (yet). The company didn’t build it as a machine that would withstand any serious challengers with a human brain. Last Friday, it released a statement about its peaceful pet only being used for good, when it thought a stunt involving a paintball gun was going to be more brutal. Its Terms and Conditions state “our products must be used in compliance with the law, and cannot be used to harm or intimidate people or animals,” according to the company.
Compliant with the law is doing a lot of work here, however, considering the only uses we’ve seen so far have turned Spot into a cop—by the Massachusetts Police Department as a “mobile remote observation device,” the Honolulu Police Department, and of course our own NYPD has rolled their toy our several times.
We don’t have Spots patrolling the streets en mass yet, and if we ever do, the manufacturers will probably figure out a way to lock that big battery up and put a plate over its butt-buttons. Still, it never hurts to start thinking about how to red-team our increasingly surveillance state future.
I’ve reached out to Boston Dynamics to comment on whether any of these tactics actually work, and will update if I hear back.
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