Art and marketing collective MSCHF—makers of the void-screaming website and "The Office Slack"—announced on Monday that their next stunt would involve allowing people around the world to log onto their website on Wednesday at 1 p.m. and take control of a Boston Dynamics Spot robot which has been mounted with a paintball gun. It’s called “Spot’s Rampage,” and it's a simple fair joke: Spot, which has been the subject of countless viral videos where it appears cute and harmless, reveals its potential as a killing machine.
Boston Dynamics, perhaps only hearing the title of the stunt and fearing the worst, helped the campaign along with a statement released on Friday distancing itself from whatever “Spot’s Rampage” might be. Before anyone knew what it was, the company posted a statement to Twitter, mentioning cryptically that an “art group” was planning “a spectacle to draw attention to a provocative use of our robot, Spot.”
“Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives,” the statement said. “This art, however, fundamentally misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.”
This statement was vague and also funny, because it attempts to say that certain types of art is good and can tell us a lot about society, but that this art is bad because it explores dystopian futures specifically tied to Boston Dynamics.
The statement says that the company cross-checks purchase requests against the U.S. government's denied persons list, and that all buyers must agree to the company’s Terms and Conditions of Sale, “which state that our products must be used in compliant with the law, and cannot be used to harm or intimidate people or animals.” Boston Dynamics said those who violate those terms would void the warranty on the $74,500 robot.
From Boston Dynamics’ statement, you’d think they were bracing for someone to show Spot murdering a real living creature in battle or worse. In a teaser video published by MSCHF, the robot is just roaming around a closed white room with a paintball gun strapped to its back.
But the subtext of the company’s statement is interesting: once they sell a Spot to a customer, Boston Dynamics has no control over what it does (for what it’s worth, this is good—companies have increasingly tried to lock down items that customers buy under onerous Terms of Service and licensing agreements, which they have used to end the very concept of ownership). John Deere does not denounce farmers who blast beer cans with machine pistols while riding on their tractors, for example.
It is, in any case, somewhat disconcerting that Spot can apparently be so easily retrofitted with a gun, but we’ve been worried about killer robots for a long time, anyway.
Goofy art stunts are fine with Boston Dynamics when they’re the ones doing it—remember when it danced in a room full of the company’s other little freak robots? Or when it danced to “Uptown Funk?”
So far, the uses for Spot we hear about the most often outside of cute company ads are by cops, and are not significantly different from the future imagined by MSCHF. It was used as a “mobile remote observation device" by the Massachusetts Police Department in 2019 "because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments.” In 2020, the New York Police Department showed off their Spot during response to a shooting—what it did there and why the NYPD needs one in the first place is unclear. The Honolulu Police Department recently used $150,045 in federal funds meant for pandemic relief on Spots of their own. The U.S. military was also interested in Boston Dynamic's BigDog robot before it deemed it too noisy to use in the field.
Maybe the company is more worried about being too boring than too thrilling. “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,” MSCHF’s Daniel Greenberg told The Verge. “It really does nothing other than walk, to be totally honest.”
Anyway, if Spot wants an ass kicking, it probably knows where to find me—the invitation is still open.