Robot Dog Challenges Ethics

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A robotic dog named Spot was recently created by Boston Dynamics, a company owned by Google. Spot has numerous abilities. He can run, climb up and down stairs, and jump. The robot dog, however, begins to challenge ethics as people work out how to treat him.

Spot is an autonomous robot and weighs about 160 pounds. He operates on four hydraulic legs and has incredible balance so that he can navigate all kinds of terrain. In a video filmed of Spot inside a building, he moved with an incredible lack of sound for being such a large device.

Spot challenges human ethics because the video released by Boston Dynamics shows Spot being kicked by a human on two different occasions. These kicks were meant to demonstrate the balance of the robo-dog and sure enough, even though he was kicked rather roughly, he did not fall down.

When CNN showed this video to people on the street many were quite offended at what they saw. Viewers gasped or looked horrified at the image of the dog being kicked. One woman called it “bad etiquette.”

However, there were those who saw Spot not as a dog but as just another machine. On man argues that people use the “tire-check” method of kicking tires when they purchase a car. The truth of the matter is that Spot cannot feel pain or sense abuse because he is a machine. He does not even look life-like and is lacking a true head or face. Nonetheless, because he moves like a dog and is labeled a “dog” people associate him with their real life companions.

Boston Dynamics claimed in an onscreen statement that “no robots were harmed in the making of this video.” However, as people construct machines to look and act life-like it becomes very hard not to see them in that way, CNN reports. PETA also lent its view on the matter saying that they deal with the abuse of real dogs each day so they will not “lose sleep over this incident.”

Noel Sharkey who is a roboticist and an emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield in the UK, was more impressed with the test than offended by the kicking. He says usually when someone kicks a robot, it tips over. Sharkey also said the only way that the act of kicking Spot could be considered unethical is if the robot could feel pain. Spot cannot. However, the roboticist also warns that if people treat a machine that looks like an animal with cruelty they might in fact be more likely to treat a living animal in the same way.

The robotic dog is challenging ethics also because Spot (and robo-dogs like him) will function to replace living dogs. He will be a substitute for dogs who sniff for bombs, lead the blind, work with police, or work as rescue dogs or herding animals. People who have been replaced by machines or recognize the possibility of this in the future are upset that dogs might be removed from their jobs too.

Because Spot the robot dog and similar human creations are challenging ethics, humans will have to respond by continuing to navigate moral territory. As people become more familiar with this technology and its presence in society new ethical ground will be discovered.

By Emilee Prado


National Monitor
Pasadena Star-News

Photo by Chris Khamken – Flickr License