Robodog Peeling Off a Model’s Clothes is a Viral Riff on Ominous Tech

Last week, leading American robotics company Boston Dynamics made its official debut at Paris Fashion Week, placing its viral robodog, Spot, on the runway at French fashion house Coperni. Yes, this spot, the one that can dance, jump rope and — oh! Yes — is already used by the US military, among other things, to patrol America’s southern border.

To the credit of both Coperni—the same folks who brought us that viral spray-on dress-on moment last year—and Boston Dynamics, we can’t stop thinking about the robodog stunt. But only because it was crap.

We have a few complaints, not the least of which is that the whole thing was pretty authentic. Machine performances have been used in catwalk shows as far back as 1999, when Alexander McQueen, live on the catwalk, had a robotic Pollock arm paint what was originally a plain white dress. Our more serious concerns, however, have to do with the whole issue of military technology—a functionality of the robots that Coperni, during the show and beyond, was only too happy to ignore.

The robodogs effectively opened the show, closely followed by the models, weaving alongside and through the four-legged machines. (The robots themselves didn’t wear any clothing, which seems like a missed opportunity to get into the luxury dog ​​sweater market.)

But the defining moment of the show came when model Rianne Van Rompaey approached a Boston Dynamics robot with a long neck, clearly a goose. Each moved toward the other cautiously, as if greeting two timid, uncertain animals. Then, after a moment of waiting, the robot removed the model’s blanket-like fur, revealing the outfit underneath. Robai stepped forward, reaching back only to retrieve her coat, which the machine graciously handed back to her. Good robot!

Indeed, “good little robot” certainly seems to be the intended message, here. As Coperni explained in an Instagram post, the show was designed to be “a contemporary fable about the relationship between humans and technology — specifically, a reimagining of Jean de la Fontaine’s classic ‘The Wolf and the Lamb,’ a fairy tale historically interpreted as a warning of the evils caused by power imbalances embedded in human order systems The peaceful lamb, standing by a brook, does no harm; the hungry wolf, emboldened by both his natural strength and out of his insatiable desire to consume, she devours the lamb anyway, justifying her violence through a series of baseless accusations.

“Unlike the original myth written in the 17th century, which raises questions about the balance of power between the human groups that make up society, Coperni reinterprets the story and takes it to the year 2023 with a positive vision of future”. The fashion label’s Instagram caption says. “The show presents Coperni’s vision that there is neither ruler nor ruled, but that humanity and machine can live in harmony.”

In other words, by this metaphor, technology is far from the wolf we think it is. Machines are good and peaceful coexistence is possible. To that end, elsewhere in the Instagram post, Coperni highlights some of Spot’s more benign applications, a list that includes “collecting equipment data in industrial facilities,” “creating digital twins on construction sites,” and “helping first responders to safely assess potentially dangerous situations.” Spot’s a good guy, see?

But conveniently outside the Coperni x Boston Dynamics narrative are the robodog’s more troubling functions. In fact, Spot is military-grade hardware, heavily funded and already in use by the US military as a tool of the increasingly sinister surveillance state, and at one point was even considered too controversial for the NYPD to be comfortable with deploying – none of which has a great energy “I Am Definitely Not a Wolf”.

Now, we should point out that unlike its gun-happy rival Ghost Robotics, Boston Dynamics has publicly pledged to refrain from literal guns—ie. strapping weapons—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.”

“Because we sell to the military, we don’t know what they do with them,” said CEO Jiren Parikh. TechCrunch journalist Brian Heater in 2021. “We’re not going to dictate to our government customers how they use robots.”

“We’re listing the line at where they’re sold,” he added. “We only sell to the US and allied governments.”

But weaponization is a broad concept, and it may well be argued that surveillance, forms of which are used worldwide today for capture and intimidation—or, if you like, domination—is a form of it.

Look, we’re not Luddites. But technology is especially dangerous when it is removed from its living context. After all, taken out of context, social media is the tool of connection and inspiration that its architects advertise it to be. in context, social media has also it destroyed teenage self-esteem, turned us into data points for targeted advertising largely without our knowledge and consent, and led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. According to a similar narrative, artificial intelligence can only be a useful assistant. in context, AI also it automates many jobs, threatens to turn the Internet as we know it into a disinformation hell, and is actively integrated into a host of poorly understood weapons.

For example: “Boston Dynamic’s mission is to imagine and create extraordinary robots that enrich people’s lives,” Coperni writes in his Instagram statement. In a very specific light – rescue missions, security inspections – this is true. But overall, Boston Dynamics’ bots are much more complex than that, and regardless of whether one is generally pessimistic about the technology or subscribes to the same “positive and happy vision of innovation and technology” that, according to his post Coperni, is “Common between Coperni and Boston Dynamics”, skepticism towards Spot and similar military-grade bots is more than justified. (In one word: drones.)

We understand, of course, that Coperni’s show was just a show, and we don’t think the fashion house is secretly planning to promote the surveillance state to its advantage by glamorizing military-grade technology.

But as metaphors go, this one feels both shallow and ultimately hollow. Spot is not completely obedient wolf, and people, that siutility machines first — and they’re going to gain a lot of fiscal, social and political power that way — they’re also not entirely helpless lambs. If removing military-grade weapons from their context is dangerous on its own, seeing them apart from us is even worse.

That said, though, perhaps Coperni’s metaphor it was effective, just not as intended. Whenever new game-changing technologies emerge, the world order changes, sometimes over 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 with that power. Humans are, and so the machines could never really be the wolf, anyway.

If there is a wolf at all, then, it must be us — and any antagonism we make to machines is an attempt to separate ourselves from our own reflection.

More on non-Boston Dynamics robodogs: Experts shocked by military robodog with sniper rifle attachment

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