How killer robot dogs could become weapons of mass destruction

A police canine inspects a Boston Dynamics dog robot in Marseille
A police canine inspects a Boston Dynamics dog robot in Marseille - LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

Of all the inventions in the dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror, perhaps none is more terrifying than the robotic guard dogs in Metalhead. In the episode, from the fourth series of the programme in 2017, Maxine Peake plays Bella, a woman who, along with two companions, breaks into a remote warehouse to look for medicine. Instead, she finds an autonomous “dog”, armed with a shotgun, knives and shrapnel sprays. It quickly kills both of her colleagues and chases Bella over the moorland with ruthless single-mindedness. The film is a chilling vision of machines programmed to do one thing only. The dog does not think or feel; it just kills.

Such machines are no longer fantasy. Last month, it was disclosed that United States Marines special operators were testing robotic dogs armed with guns based on sentry automatic machine guns. Robotic quadrupeds have become increasingly common across the US military in recent years, for everything from bomb disposal to perimeter patrols, but arming them is a newer development.

Not to be outdone, three weeks later, the Chinese military released a YouTube video showing its own four-legged robot, armed with an assault rifle, working alongside its soldiers on exercises. “It can serve as a new member in our urban combat operations,” one soldier says in the video, while the footage shows the rifle firing off bursts, “replacing our members to conduct reconnaissance and identify [the] enemy, and strike the target.” The film makes it clear why such a robot might be useful, able to run into dangerous situations ahead of human soldiers. In another video, an army of similar machines does press-ups in sync.

Britain has its own initiative, too. It has been testing Boston Dynamics’s “Spot” quadruped as well as Ghost Robotics’s V60 for future use alongside ground troops. Speaking about the V60, Dave Swan, the lead engineer of FCG Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise, said the “quadruped offers increased situational awareness for soldiers on the ground”, with the “potential to act as the eyes and ears for soldiers on the front line”. With a gun on its back, however, one of these machines becomes more than a sensor array.

“Trials have previously taken place with robotic dogs,” said a Ministry of Defence spokesman, exploring “the potential they hold for delivering mission-critical supplies, scoping out hazardous areas, or performing combat tasks that are deemed too dangerous for humans.”

The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have proved that wars will increasingly be fought by unmanned machines. “Too dangerous for humans” might justify any number of robot uses. Drones have been a decisive presence on the battlefield since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in 2022, mostly in the air. There is no shortage of footage of deadly, remote-controlled drones trundling across fields towards tanks and armoured personnel carriers, before delivering decisive blows. In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli forces have been using quadruped robots to clear tunnels and other cramped locations.

Dogs in service go back at least to ancient Rome. Firefighters have long used them to go into places humans cannot or dare not enter, police and military forces use them for intimidation: remember Cairo, the dog who kept curious civilians at bay while the US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden? Robot dogs are already in service with police forces around the world, for crowd control and other duties. In Singapore they were deployed to enforce social distancing during the pandemic. But it is not only governments that are finding use for them. Throwflame, an American firm, offers a flamethrower-wielding robot dog, called the Thermonator, for sale on its website, priced at $9,420 (£7,420) and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled.

The core technology behind the robot dogs is nearly 20 years old. It was in 2005 that Boston Dynamics revealed its BigDog, a larger quadruped robot which was originally intended to act like a kind of mule for troops covering rough terrain. While it was eventually deemed too noisy to be of practical use, the technology found a smaller, more functional home in its successor robot, Spot, which was unveiled 10 years later, and is the foundational design for other robots – as well as acting as the point of inspiration for Black Mirror’s writers. Outside the military, robot dogs are being developed to work as guide dogs for the blind, or for use in search-and-rescue operations.

Peter W Singer, a fellow at the US think tank New America and an expert on advanced military technology, says it is natural that robots echo shapes found in the natural world. But, he adds, that does not make them any less unsettling. “It shouldn’t be all that surprising, as bio-inspired robots take copy from the greater engineer of all, God or evolution, dependent on your faith,” says Singer. “However, it does add to the ‘creep’ factor of the machines. There is a concept called the ‘uncanny valley’, which is the idea that the closer something looks like a living being, but isn’t, the more it creeps us out. Think of your natural reaction to a shiny metallic robot versus one that has a mannequin’s skin. The mannequin would look more human-like, but also fill you more with unease.”

Of all their applications, it is the use, or trialling, of robot dogs for military purposes that is raising eyebrows the most. Like the British, the IDF is mostly using the “Vision 60” model made by Ghost Robotics, a Pennsylvania-based company. Ghost does not use the term “robot dog”, preferring “quadrupedal unmanned ground vehicle”, or QUGV, although it concedes that the device “mimics how mammals move across a range of natural and urban environments”.

Boston Dynamics has traditionally been wary about the prospect of arming its platforms. Ghost Robotics has taken a more hands-off approach. In October 2021, the company made headlines by exhibiting a version of its product with a gun mounted on it. At the time, Jiren Parikh, Ghost’s co-founder, who died in 2022, said he was relaxed about Vision 60 being armed.

“All we’re trying to do is allow them to use our robot in military and other government agency applications to keep our people from getting hurt,” he told IEEE Spectrum, a tech and engineering magazine, adding that “if it’s a weapon that they need to put on our robot to do their job, we’re happy for them to do that”.

Not everyone was convinced, especially when it came to the prospect of these robots being made increasingly autonomous by AI. In October 2022, Boston Dynamics wrote a letter, co-signed by five other firms, pledging not to support the weaponisation of its products. “We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues,” it said.

A multifunctional robot dog called "Wolfgang" of the German Armed Forces
A multifunctional robot dog called 'Wolfgang' belonging to the German armed forces - Axel Heimken

The letter echoed concerns raised by Daniel Koditschek, a professor of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a former colleague of Parikh’s, who asked for his name to be removed from Ghost’s literature and website. “I am certain that this integration of guns with the emerging agility and eventual ubiquity of small legged machines transgresses a crucial ethical barrier,” he said. He went on to warn of the dangers of integrating the technology with AI. “Today’s legged machines are already capable of significant autonomous mobility in rugged outdoor environments and, once electromagnetically integrated, such armed platforms lie only a software upgrade away from informational integration into much more distributed systems,” Koditschek said, concluding that autonomous swarms of these devices would “amount to weapons of mass destruction”.

To some, this is alarmist. Scary as online videos of robot dogs shooting guns might seem, they remain in their infancy. Unlike drones, which are global, these bits of kit are being pursued so far only by large countries with expansive budgets.

Demonstration of the Vision 60 UGV by Ghost Robotics in Seoul, South Korea
Excited passersby watch a demonstration of the Vision 60 UGV by Ghost Robotics in Seoul, South Korea - NurPhoto

“There is a variety of technology that is being put out there that is just not ready for prime time, whether it is driverless cars to robotic dogs,” says Singer. “There is a real difference between showing something off in a YouTube clip and it actually working in a variety of settings. That is not just a risk to the users, but also a risk to others around them.”

Michael J Boyle, an academic and the author of The Drone Age, is largely of the same opinion.

“There is a competition between the US and China and a few other players to develop these robot dogs, but the reality is it’s not a widespread arms race,” he says. “These are expensive and hard to develop, so only countries with vast military budgets and research and development capacities are able to play this game.

“For the most part the robot dogs are exquisite prototypes,” Boyle adds. “Much of the work around them has been focused on whether they can remain stable, handle terrain (and tricky moves like steps) and move with reasonable speed in complex environments. Although the Chinese military has displayed a gun on them, and the US has done the same, this is not yet an expected, regular use of them at the moment. I think we are a long way off from a Terminator-style ‘robots in combat’ scenario.”

Still, history suggests Koditschek may have a point. No vehicle has been made that has not soon been weaponised: from submarines to aircraft to remote-controlled cars. Aerial drones were once the preserve of a handful of nations, but have come rapidly down in cost.

A robot dog equipped with a machine gun is displayed in front of Chinese soldiers
A robot dog equipped with a machine gun is displayed in front of Chinese soldiers - TANG CHHIN SOTHYTANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP

And what is already clear is that the warnings around robot dogs have not prevented competition to develop them; the quadrupeds themselves, what can be mounted on them and the extent to which they can work autonomously. It seems inevitable that armed versions will become more widespread, in military and civilian cases. Whether the population is ready for them is another question. The back story of the Black Mirror episode, which the viewer slowly realises, is that this is a post-apocalyptic landscape, in which the single-minded dogs have hunted humans to the verge of extinction. As dog owners have always known, the more dangerous the animal, the more important it is properly trained.