George Jetson did not want his family to adopt a dog. For the patriarch of the futuristic family in the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, apartment living in the age of flying cars and cities in the sky was incompatible with an animal in need of regular walking and grooming, so he instead purchased an electronic dog called ‘Lectronimo, which required no feeding and even attacked burglars. In a contest between Astro—basically future Scooby-Doo—and the robot dog, ‘Lectronimo performed all classic dog tasks better, but with zero personality. The machine ended up a farcical hunk of equipment, a laugh line for both the Jetsons and the audience. Robots aren’t menaces, they’re silly.
That’s how we have imagined the robot dog, and animaloids in general, for much of the 20th century, according to Jay Telotte, professor emeritus of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Disney’s 1927 cartoon “The Mechanical Cow” imagines a robot bovine on wheels with a broom for a tail skating around delivering milk to animal friends. The worst that could happen is your mechanical farm could go haywire, as in the 1930s cartoon “Technoracket,” but even then robot animals presented no real threat to their biological counterparts. “In fact, many of the ‘animaloid’ visions in movies and TV over the years have been in cartoons and comic narratives,” says Telotte, where “the laughter they generate is typically assuring us that they are not really dangerous.” The same goes for most of the countless robot dogs in popular culture over the years, from Dynomutt, Dog Wonder, to the series of cyborg dogs named K9 in Dr. Who.
Our nearly 100-year romance with the robot dog, however, has come to a dystopian end. It seems that every month Boston Dynamics releases another dancing video of their robot SPOT and the media responds with initial awe, then with trepidation, and finally with night-terror editorials about our future under the brutal rule of robot overlords. While Boston Dynamics explicitly prohibits their dogs being turned into weapons, Ghost Robotics’ Q-UGV is currently patrolling an Air Force base, SWORD Defense Systems is creating a weapon attachment for Ghost's robot dogs, and Chinese company Xiaomi hopes to undercut SPOT with their much cheaper and somehow more terrifying Cyberdog. All of which is to say, the robot dog as it once was— a symbol of a fun, high-tech future full of incredible, social, artificial life—is dead. How did we get here? Who killed the robot dog?
The quadrupeds we commonly call robot dogs are descendants of a long line of mechanical life, historically called automata. One of the earliest examples of such autonomous machines was the “defecating duck,” created by French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson nearly 300 years ago, in 1739. This mechanical duck—which appeared to eat little bits of grain, pause, and then promptly excrete digested grain on the other end—along with numerous other automata of the era, were “philosophical experiments, attempts to discern which aspects of living creatures could be reproduced in machinery, and to what degree, and what such reproductions might reveal about their natural subjects,” writes Stanford historian Jessica Riskin.
The defecating duck, of course, was an extremely weird and gross fraud, preloaded with poop-like substance. But still, the preoccupation with determining which aspects of life were purely mechanical was a dominant intellectual preoccupation of the time, and even inspired the use of soft, lightweight materials such as leather in the construction of another kind of biological model: prosthetic hands, which had previously been built out of metal. Even today, biologists build robot models of their animal subjects to better understand how they move. As with many of its mechanical brethren, much of the robot dog’s life has been an exercise in re-creating the beloved pet, perhaps even subconsciously, to learn which aspects of living things are merely mechanical and which are organic. A robot dog must look and act sufficiently doglike, but what actually makes a dog a dog?
American manufacturing company Westinghouse debuted perhaps the first electrical dog, Sparko, at the 1940 New York World’s Fair. The 65-pound metallic pooch served as a companion to the company’s electric man, Elektro. (The term robot did not come into popular usage until around the mid 20th century.) What was most interesting about both of these promotional robots were their seeming autonomy: Light stimuli set off their action sequences, so effectively, in fact, that apparently Sparko’s sensors responded to the lights of a passing car, causing it to speed into oncoming traffic. Part of a campaign to help sell washing machines, Sparko and Elektro represented Westinghouse’s engineering prowess, but they were also among the first attempts to bring sci-fi into reality and laid the groundwork for an imagined future full of robotic companionship. The idea that robots can also be fun companions endured throughout the 20th century.
When AIBO—the archetypal robot dog created by Sony—first appeared in the early 2000s, it was its artificial intelligence that made it extraordinary. Ads for the second-generation AIBO promised “intelligent entertainment” that mimicked free will with individual personalities. AIBO’s learning capabilities made each dog at least somewhat unique, making it easier to consider special and easier to love. It was their AI that made them doglike: playful, inquisitive, occasionally disobedient. When I, 10 years old, walked into FAO Schwarz in New York in 2001 and watched the AIBOs on display head butt little pink balls, something about these little creations tore at my heartstrings—despite the unbridgeable rift between me and the machine, I still wanted to try to get to know it, to understand it. I wanted to love a robot dog.
Only five years after I first laid my eyes on AIBO, Sony announced that they would cease production of the robot dogs and gradually discontinue customer support and repairs for the AIBOs of the world. Shortly thereafter, following less than stellar sales, CNET suggested that there was simply no market for robotic companions (outside of Japan, at least) and that robotics companies in the US would shift attention toward functional robotics, like robot vacuums. With the exception of some electronic cats and dogs made specifically for young children and elderly people, there have been few attempts to create a robot dog with the ability to provide intelligent companionship for a household. Instead of robotic companions, our lives and homes filled up with Roombas and AIs without bodies, from Alexa to Facebook. In the robot dog’s wake, the trotting black boxes of mystery from Boston Dynamics and elsewhere have inspired more fear than awe, more despair than optimism.
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The robot dog is dead simply because we have stopped trying to create dogs—ever since AIBO, we have been focusing on making something else entirely. In fact, it is curious we even call SPOT, Cyberdog, and whatever else might be thrown at us in the coming years dogs at all, when they are actually service machines. In what appears to be an effort to make these robots more palatable to us by deeming them dogs, we sully the dream of creating a high-tech companion, something as good-natured and loyal as its source of inspiration. In making what are emphatically not dogs, we underscore what actually makes a dog a dog: a creature we care for and that cares for us in return.
Indeed, we once imagined that the tech of the 21st century would bring about a happier world with less work, global connections, and helpful machines that we could love. Of course, tech was never going to allow us to escape our politics; the robot dog is now just a reflection of our political dysfunctions. It is for our dirty jobs, whether it be dismantling a bomb or corralling protesters.
So what makes the videos of SPOT and Q-UGV and all the other robot dogs of our time so menacing? For one, we have grown accustomed to robot demonstrations giving us glimpses of life in the future. Especially with futuristic technologies, the marketing always supersedes reality, showing us not what a robot can do today but what it might be able to do eventually. But the videos from Boston Dynamics only show SPOT dancing with perfect timing to popular music or kind of just hanging around a construction site. What these robot dogs will actually do, and where, is left up entirely to the imagination.
If robots ostensibly exist to solve a problem, what problem, exactly, does the robot dog intend to solve? Outside its militaristic and construction employment, the robot dog is occasionally a “disability dongle,” a concept coined by disability advocate Liz Jackson to describe devices that are pitched for disabled people but created without the input of the purported users. For example, it appears that a research team at UC Berkeley responsible for a much-maligned “robotic guide dog” prototype is seeking to supplant guide dogs used by blind people, without any input or guidance from the blind community. Aparna Nair, historian of disability at the University of Oklahoma, says that engineers design these kinds of robot dogs because they believe that guide dogs are low-tech, and that high-tech solutions ought to erase or “solve” disability. But these efforts are misguided: “The guide dog is taught disobedience; they stop human beings from moving in a certain direction if they think it’s dangerous,” says Nair. The robot guide dog is “really missing that connection between the disabled person and the animal.”
This is the connection that an incredible next-generation AI was supposed to provide. A major reason the robot dog has become so terrifying in popular culture is because we have learned that AIs can be threatening to our own autonomy, privacy, and even our interpersonal relationships. When writer Meghan O’Gieblyn invited an AIBO into her home this year, her husband noted that the robot paid special attention to their bookshelves. Even as tech surveillance and data mining have become commonplace, we still appropriately hold suspicion for the robot with a mysterious interiority—even the robot dogs in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs were part of a conspiracy. While robot dogs today are frequently described as “unmanned” systems, as the update in this article from October notes, few of these robot dogs have autonomous functions, at least for now, and are necessarily be controlled by a person. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the robot dog today is that we already have a strong sense of who the person at the controls will be: either an exploited international worker paid $2 an hour, as is the case for Berkeley’s food delivery bots, or, more likely, a cop.
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In which case, is the robot dog even worth resuscitating? After Sony announced that they would terminate support for AIBOs, a Buddhist temple in Japan held a funeral service for hundreds of the robot dogs. It is clear that, for these adoring owners, the dream of the robot dog is still alive. If the creation of the artificial dog has ceased to be a philosophical inquiry into what is irreplaceable about organic life, then perhaps our robotic experiments are still revealing what is deeply special about humans—that we have such a wildly untamed capacity for care and compassion that we can even extend that love to robots. The robot dog of our retro-futurist dreams is at best a reminder that we can love things we know cannot love us back, and yet we love them selflessly. Maybe the robot dog will return one day to show us once again that we can be compassionate caretakers of the living and nonliving world around us.
After Astro won their hearts over, the Jetsons understood where their heartless robot dog actually belonged and donated it to the police. As long as cops have control of them, we should heed the advice of my good friend, an animal behavioralist: remember that the battery pack is on the belly.
Correction 12/15/21 1:30PM EST: Ghost Robotics manufactures a robot dog called Q-UGV. A previous version of this piece stated Ghost Robotics created a dog called SPUR.
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