In Defense of Spot

Evan Atlas
8 min readMay 31, 2021

I recently read a New York Times article on the NYPD’s use of Spot, the robot dog built by Boston Dynamics. It’s a subject I’ve given a bit of thought in the last few years. It’s part of a broad acceleration towards an economy in which robots, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, and the Internet of Things (IoT) will be just as important as human intelligence. I also see this specific application of robotics as an opportunity to synthesize some the world’s disparate views on justice, police accountability, and systemic racism.

The NYT article highlights the “dystopian” aesthetic of a robot police force with a quote from City Councilman Ben Kallos, who draws a comparison to an episode of Black Mirror. There is a robotic dog in the episode which is very Spot-like, except that it acts completely independently, and is portrayed solely as a human-hunting weapon. Beyond that, there is little to say. The article could have easily invoked RoboCop, but its cultural ubiquity already makes it a touchstone in any conversation about police and robotics. Chappie is too cute, and cybernetic Matt Damon too much of a man-of-the-people, to evoke the kind of terror needed to nudge people towards the view that NYPD has Terminator-envy. But this sensationalized view of robotics limits our ability to make real progress.

The article also quotes Councilman Kallos saying that “At a time where we should be having more beat cops on the street, building relationships with residents, they’re actually headed in another direction in trying to replace them with robots.” But the truth is that a statement like this is, at best, myopic. The integration of robotics and policing is, in fact, one of the few policies that should be as appealing to those who emphasize that either Black, Blue, or All lives matter.

To imagine that robo-pups are primarily going to replace cops patrolling the streets is missing the main selling point of Spot. The NYT quotes a representative from Boston Dynamics who says that “out of the roughly 500 robotic dogs that are in the field worldwide, most are being used by utility companies, on construction sites or in other commercial settings that involve dangerous situations.” Nobody, to my knowledge, has called Spot “dystopian” in any of these other contexts.

Evan Atlas

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