A group of meme-spinning pranksters now wants to present a more dystopian view of the company's robotic tech. They added a paintball gun to Spot, the company’s doglike machine, and plan to let others control it inside a mocked-up art gallery via the internet later this week.
Previous MSCHF stunts include creating an app that awarded $25,000 to whomever could hold a button down for the longest; selling “Jesus Shoes” sneakers with real holy water in the soles (Drake bought a pair); developing an astrology-based stock-picking app; and cutting up and selling individual spots from a Damian Hirst painting.
Daniel Greenberg, a member of MSCHF, claims there’s a serious side to Spot’s Rampage though. “Anytime you see a TikTok or a dance it's like, ‘Oh God, Spot is so happy,’” Greenberg says. “But if we actually talk candidly about what it’s going to be used for in the real world, you could say it's police, you could say it's military.”
Needless to say, Boston Dynamics isn’t very happy. The company tweeted on Friday: “We condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight and positively impact society.”
Perry adds that it is a particular concern because the company is trying to sell its robots. “It's not just a moral point, it's also a commercial point for us,” he says.
Because the robot periodically checks in with Boston Dynamics servers, it would theoretically be possible to disable the Spot that MSCHF is using. “We’re wrestling with that,” Perry adds. The MSCHF crew claim to have a workaround ready just in case.
Boston Dynamics has spent decades developing robots that balance dynamically—that is by constantly moving—in order to traverse difficult terrain. The technology, which emerged from academia, was developed with funding from Darpa for more than a decade before Google acquired it in 2013. Boston Dynamics was sold to Softbank in 2017, and it was acquired by Hyundai in 2020. The company began selling Spot for $74,500 in 2019.
The machines have remarkably lifelike capabilities. Clips of the robots, which include a person-sized humanoid, often attract comparisons to sci-fi movies containing killer robots.
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The MSCHF crew claim that Boston Dynamics offered it two extra Spots to cancel the stunt and remove the paintball gun. Perry says the company offered to help MSCHF set up a demonstration that didn’t involve using a gun, including on-site technical support and a couple of spare Spots.
I had the chance to take Spot (and its gun) for an internet-controlled spin. Replicas of several artworks—including Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and a KAWS toy sculpture—were arranged around a room with white walls, visible through a camera on Spot. I could move the robot and fire its gun through a web app. To be honest, I had more fun controlling the legged machine, which was configured to automatically avoid obstacles, than unloading paintball pellets, but perhaps that’s just a pacifist tendency.
The stunt is a little ironic, too, considering MSCHF’s backstory. The collective says the money for its stunts comes from “venture backing,” without providing more detail. But Trae Stephens, a member of Founders Fund and also a cofounder of Anduril, a company set up to develop cutting-edge military technology, previously funded another MSCHF project—a social app that’s sole function is sending every user an alert when a button is pressed. Asked about Spot’s Rampage, Stephens said, “The team will do a much better job explaining the vision than I can, so I’ll leave it to them.”