Last week, the leading American robotics firm Boston Dynamics made its official Paris Fashion Week debut, deploying its viral robodog, Spot, on French fashion label Coperni's runway. Yes, that Spot, the one that can dance, jump rope, and — oh yeah — appeared alongside French soldiers during a 2021 military exercise.
To the credit of both Coperni — the same folks who brought us that viral spray-on dress moment last year — and Boston Dynamics, who has pledged not to weaponize its robodog, we can't stop thinking about the robodog runway stunt. But only because it sucked.
We have a few grievances, the least of which is that the whole thing was pretty unoriginal. Machine performances have been used in runway performances reaching as far back as 1999, when Alexander McQueen, live on the runway, had a paint-wielding robotic arm Pollock what was initially a plain-white gown. Our most serious concerns, however, have to do with the whole military tech thing — a functionality of the robots that Coperni, during the show and after, was all too happy to ignore.
The robodogs actually opened the show, followed closely by the models, who wove by and through the four-legged machines. (The bots themselves weren't wearing any couture, which feels like a missed opportunity to crack into the luxury dog sweater market.)
But the show's defining moment came when model Rianne Van Rompaey approached a long-necked, decidedly goose-ish Boston Dynamics bot. Each moved toward the other with caution, akin to the way that two timid, unsure animals might greet. Then, after a moment of anticipation, the robot took off the model's blanket-like fur, revealing the outfit beneath. Rompaey marched on, reaching back only to take back her coat, which the machine kindly handed back. Good little robot!
Indeed, "good little robot" certainly seems to be the intended message, here. As Coperni detailed in an Instagram post, the show was designed to be "a modern fable about the relationship between humans and technology — specifically, a reimagining of Jean de la Fontaine's classic "The Wolf and the Lamb," a tale historically interpreted as a warning against the evils wrought by the power imbalances embedded into human class systems. The peaceful lamb, standing in a stream, does nothing wrong; the hungry wolf, emboldened by both its physical power and its insatiable desire to consume, gobbles up the lamb anyway, justifying its violence through a series of baseless accusations.
"Unlike the original fable written in the 17th century, which raises questions relating to the balance of power between the human groups that make up society, Coperni reinterprets the story and transposes it to the year of 2023 with a positive vision of the future," the fashion label's Instagram caption reads. "The show presents Coperni's vision which is that there is neither a dominant nor a dominated, but that mankind and machine can live in harmony."
In other words, by this metaphor, technology is far from the wolf that we believe it to be. Machines are good, and peaceful coexistence is possible. To that end, elsewhere in the Instagram post, Coperni points out some of Spot's more benign applications, a list including "collecting equipment data in industrial facilities," "creating digital twins on construction sites," and "helping first responders safely assess potentially hazardous situations." Spot is a good boy, see?
But conveniently left out of the Coperni x Boston Dynamics narrative are the more troubling functions of the robodog. In reality, Spot is military-grade hardware, heavily funded and already in use by the US military as a tool of the increasingly eerie surveillance state, and at one point was even deemed too controversial for the NYPD to feel comfortable deploying — none of which has big "I Am Definitely Not a Wolf" energy.
Now, we do need to point out that unlike its artillery-happy rival Ghost Robotics, Boston Dynamics has publicly pledged to abstain from literally weaponizing — i.e. strapping guns to — its robots, promising in an open letter last year that "when possible, we will carefully review our customers' intended applications to avoid potential weaponization." Emphasis, of course, on "when possible."
Its competitor has a decidedly different take on the matter.
"Because we're selling to the military, we don't know what they do with them," Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh told TechCrunch reporter Brian Heater back in 2021. "We're not going to dictate to our government customers how they use the robots."
"We do draw the line on where they're sold," he added. "We only sell to US and allied governments."
But weaponization is a broad concept, and it can well be argued that surveillance, forms of which are currently being used worldwide to arrest and intimidate — or, if you will, dominate — is a form of it.
Look, we're not Luddites. But technology is especially dangerous when it's removed from its lived context. After all, taken out of context, social media is the tool for connection and inspiration that its architects tout it to be; in context, social media has also destroyed teenage self-worth, turned us into targeted-ad data points largely without our knowledge and consent, and resulted in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. By a similarly cherry-picked narrative, AI might only be a helpful assistant; in context, AI also stands to automate a lot of jobs, threatens to turn the internet as we know it into misinformation hell, and is actively being incorporated into a range of poorly understood weapons.
To wit: "Boston Dynamic's mission is to imagine and create exceptional robots that enrich people's lives," Coperni writes in their Instagram statement. Seen in a very specific light — rescue missions, safety inspections — this feels true. But in full, the Boston Dynamics bots are just way more complicated than that, and regardless of whether someone is generally tech-pessimistic or subscribes to the same "positive and joyful vision of innovation and technology" that, according to the Coperni post, is "shared between Coperni and Boston Dynamics," skepticism toward Spot and similar military-grade bots is more than warranted. (In a word: drones.)
We understand, of course, that the Coperni show was just a performance, and we don't think that the fashion house is secretly plotting to further the surveillance state for its own benefit by glamorizing military-grade tech.
But as far as metaphors go, this one feels as shallow as it does ultimately hollow. Spot is no perfectly docile wolf, and humans, who build machines in the first place — and stand to gain a lot of fiscal, social, and political power in doing so — aren't perfectly helpless lambs, either. If removing military-grade weapons from their context is dangerous as-is, seeing them as separate from us is even worse.
That said, though, maybe Coperni's metaphor was effective, just not as intended. Whenever game-changing new technologies emerge, the world order changes, sometimes over the course of decades, sometimes overnight. But it's easy to forget, especially in an age of increasingly autonomous machines, that the machines aren't actually the ones raking in that power. Humans are, and so machines could never actually be the wolf, anyway.
If there is a wolf at all, then, it has to be us — and any enemy that we make of machines is an attempt to separate ourselves from our own reflection.
Correction March 9, 2023: A previous version of this article claimed that Boston Dynamics' robots were used to patrol the southern border, which is incorrect. The US Department of Homeland Security is testing robots by a company called Ghost Robotics, not Boston Dynamics.
A previous version of this article also misattributed a quote to Boston Dynamics' CEO (Robert Playter), when it was in fact Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parik who said that "because we're selling to the military, we don't know what they do with them."
More on non-Boston Dynamics robodogs: Experts Shocked by Military Robodog With Sniper Rifle Attachment