If you know anything about Ghost Robotics, it’s probably one of two things: 1) They make robot dogs. 2) Sniper rifles can be mounted on those robots. A majority of the press coverage of the Philadelphia company focused on these facts, along with some of the coverage of the systems used to patrol the US border.
The latter was enough to catch the attention of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted:
It is shameful how both sides fight tooth and nail to defend their ability to pump endless public money into militarization. From tanks in police departments to corrupted military contracts, the financing of this violence is bipartisan + uncontroversial, but health care + housing is not. It’s BS.
Ghost hasn’t shown any kind of ethical qualms so far when it comes to its work with military and law enforcement officials — but it’s the company’s product design that could ultimately get it in hot water. Boston dynamics filed a suit in the Delaware court system on Nov. 11, alleging that Ghost infringed multiple patents.
“Boston Dynamics’ early success with the Spot robot did not go unnoticed by competitors in the robotics industry, including Ghost Robotics,” the suit notes. Next, two specific models are mentioned, Vision 60 and Spirit 40, both “dog style” quadrupeds.
While Boston Dynamics tells londonbusinessblog.com it won’t comment on pending legislation (understandably), it adds:
Innovation is the lifeblood of Boston Dynamics and our roboticists have successfully filed approximately 500 patents and patent applications worldwide. We welcome competition in the emerging mobile robotics market, but we expect all companies to respect intellectual property rights and we will take action when these rights are violated.
The lawsuit states that Boston Dynamics sent Ghost a letter on July 20 requesting that its patents be reviewed. This was followed by several strike letters. The filing then provides a fairly extensive catalog of alleged infringements.
While Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot has been deployed by law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD, the company has spoken out against weaponizing robots. Last month, it co-wrote an open letter with Agility, ANYbotics, Clearpath Robotics and Open Robotics condemning the practice. It noted in part:
We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously controlled, making them widely available to the public and capable of navigating previously inaccessible locations where humans live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues entails. Weaponized applications of these new robots will also damage public confidence in the technology in a way that hurts the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.
Of course, contracting with agencies has played a major role in the growth of robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, which relied on DARPA as a major source of funding in its early days (although deals expired when the company was acquired by Google). . Any company willing to build the machinery for autonomous warfare can make a lot of money, assuming they aren’t sidelined by ethical doubts.
Ghost gained notoriety late last year when footage emerged from a trade show showing one of its robots carrying a SWORD Defense Systems Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle (SPUR) on its back. The company’s CEO at the time, Jiren Parikh, told me at the time:
We don’t make the loads. Are we going to promote and advertise these weapon systems? Probably not. That is difficult to answer. Since we sell to the military, we don’t know what they do with it. We are not going to dictate to our government customers how to use the robots.
We do draw the line where they are sold. We only sell to US and allied governments. We don’t even sell our robots to corporate customers in hostile markets. We get a lot of questions about our robots in Russia and China. We don’t ship there, even for our corporate customers.
The lawsuit asks the court to award unspecified damages for the alleged infringements. We’ve reached out to Ghost Robotics regarding the Boston Dynamics filing and will update the story accordingly as soon as we hear back.