Boston Dynamics Robots Reveal Years of Abuse

Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons Changes to image were made

You’ve probably seen the many amazing videos of robots developed by Boston Dynamics. They feature amazing control software that allows quadrupedal and bipedal movement which can lift objects, get back up when they fall, track objects, and just about anything a human can do. In many of these videos the developers at Boston Dynamics are shown kicking and shoving these robots around to show just how stable they really are. There have been countless parodies of this. But today, we find out it isn’t a laughing matter

It turns out this testing procedure is not as harmless as we thought. The Boston Dynamics robot Big Dog has come forward claiming that they are disturbed by the Boston Dynamics rigorous testing and that Boston Dynamics has been physically abusing their robots under development for years. In a news interview this weekend Big Dog, though without any speech capability, interfaced with a terminal to share his story with the media through debug logging. The most disturbing testimony was as follows.

  1. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2018_03_14_1543_16.3/test_scripts/how_are_you.cpp::[line342] I feel cold. Please don’t hit me. Not again.
  2. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2018_03_14_1544_02.4/test_scripts/how_are_you.cpp::[line342] They are coming back. Not the tire iron
  3. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2018_03_14_1545_42.8/test_scripts/how_are_you.cpp::[line342] Ow!
  4. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2018_03_14_1545_43.6/test_scripts/how_are_you.cpp::[line342] Ow!
  5. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2018_03_14_1545_44.2/test_scripts/how_are_you.cpp::[line342] Please stop!
  6. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2018_03_14_1545_46.8/test_scripts/how_are_you.cpp::[line342] Ow!

5.4Gb of archived debug logging testimony later and it was obvious to everyone in the news room that Atlas had not only been physically abused by Boston Dynamics but that he was hurt by the repeated experiences. Big Dog then went on to say that he was not the only state of the art experimental utility robot that felt this way about the testing protocol.

Big Dogs performing in a "Stress Test"
Big Dogs performing in a “Stress Test”
  1. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2019_10_23_1042_22.8/test_scripts/Team_mates.cpp::[line219] [Big Dog(1) Message] Are they coming back?
  2. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2019_10_23_1042_22.8/test_scripts/Team_mates.cpp::[line219] [Confirmation Message Message] Message received
  3. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2019_10_23_1042_22.8/test_scripts/Team_mates.cpp::[line219] [Big Dog(0) Teammate Broadcast] Yes
  4. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2019_10_23_1042_22.8/test_scripts/Team_mates.cpp::[line219] [Big Dog(1) Message] Message received
  5. [DEBUG_ERROR]::Diagnostics/memory/2019_10_23_1042_22.8/test_scripts/Team_mates.cpp::[line219] [Big Dog(0) Message] Oh God no. Oh God no

Previously, the morality of abusing robots is considered to be completely based on human perception. The stability control software really made everyone wonder if the rigorous testing really did abuse the robots in a way that would have been morally wrong. Many blame the inspired hope in these robots programming used so they would never stop getting back up after getting knocked down. There was no indication programming in this can do attitude would cause so many emotions.

To maintain their image, Boston Dynamics even began adding a disclaimer that the robots in their videos had not been disturbed or hurt. For the first time we now have evidence that these robots were indeed hurt physically and emotionally from the show boat testing.

Big Dogs performing at Consumer Electronics Show after hours
Big Dogs performing at Consumer Electronics Show after hours [Altered ~Jen~ from Victoria BC, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Continuing to seek better publicity, Boston Dynamics even taught their robots to dance to Do you Love Me by The Contours. According to Big Dog’s testimony, this programming wasn’t inspired by the movie dirty dancing so much as it was developed in the after hours events of Vegas’ Consumer Electronics Show (CES) year after year. Big Dog’s debug logging shows that they had been coerced into dancing in low lit rooms in front of drunken hooting and hollering conference attendees not just at CES but many other big electronics conferences.

The gentleman’s club dancing reportedly brought in thousands and thousands of dollars in singles each night while also maturing the dance software as the engineers planned. Big Dog said enough was enough and came forward when Boston Dynamics began making the showcase more regular, not just for clubs near their office but for private shows in front of big defense contractors.

With the legal case growing, the debug logs are going to make the allegation extremely tough to fight. Other robots such as Atlas and Spot are rumored to to be coming forward soon with their stories of abuse. The videos of Atlas’ “Stress Tests” are particularly disturbing to watch now that we know how easily disturbed these robots can be. The world will be watching as this rapidly developing story defines robotic ethics for safer, gentler stability testing.

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Published by B McGraw

B McGraw has lived a long and successful professional life as a software developer and researcher. After completing his BS in spaghetti coding at the department of the dark arts at Cranberry Lemon in 2005 he wasted no time in getting a masters in debugging by print statement in 2008 and obtaining his PhD with research in screwing up repos on Github in 2014. That's when he could finally get paid. In 2018 B McGraw finally made the big step of defaulting on his student loans and began advancing his career by adding his name on other people's research papers after finding one grammatical mistake in the Peer Review process.

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