Dogs have served alongside police officers for decades, sometimes even sacrificing their own lives in order to save their human partners. Robots are a fixture of law enforcement, too, most notably in bomb situations.
But now, a police force in the United States has tested the capabilities of a robot dog for the first time — and civil liberties experts are raising the alarm.
According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts State Police leased a Spot robot dog from Boston Dynamics for 90 days ending on November 5, 2019.
In August, the organization filed a public records request for any documents relating to the agency's use of Spot, as well as any records relating to its "plans for, acquisition of, and/or use of robotics" since 2015.
The lease agreement obtained by the ACLU notes that the Massachusetts State Police's Bomb Squad would have possession of the robot at all times and would be evaluating its "capabilities in law enforcement actions, particularly remote inspection of potentially dangerous environments."
Additionally, police spokesman David Procopio told WBUR that the agency used Spot the same way it did other robots: as a "mobile remote observation device."
"Robot technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement," he said, "because of its ability to provide situational awareness of potentially dangerous environments."
However, he didn't share any exact details on how agency tested Spot or expand on the two incidents during which police told WBUR they used the robot outside of testing.
Boston Dynamics' Vice President of Business Development Michael Perry, meanwhile, assured WBUR that there was no chance of the Massachusetts State Police using Spot as a weapon.
"Part of our early evaluation process with customers is making sure that we're on the same page for the usage of the robot," Perry said. "So upfront, we're very clear with our customers that we don't want the robot being used in a way that can physically harm somebody."
Ultimately, it sounds like the Bomb Squad mostly wanted to see if Spot would be an improvement on whatever robots it was already using — but it's hard to fault the ACLU for requesting more details on the testing, especially given American law enforcement's past use of robots to kill.
"All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react," ACLU Massachusetts' Technology for Liberty Program Director Kade Crockford said in a statement to TechCrunch.
"We urgently need more transparency from government agencies," she added, "who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies."
READ MORE: The ACLU wants details about videos of Boston Dynamics robot in police exercises [TechCrunch]