June 23, 2024

The Chinese military has launched its latest weapon – a gun-toting robot dog.

The mechanical dog, which has an automatic rifle on its back, has been front and center in recent joint military exercises with Cambodia, according to footage from state broadcaster CCTV.

The dog was backed up by a similarly armed quadcopter in the exercises, which saw the machines paired with human soldiers in dry runs for urban assaults. “It can serve as a new member in our urban combat operations, replacing our human members to do reconnaissance and identify enemy and hit the target,” Chen Wei, a Chinese soldier, said in the video.

While they may be technologically advanced, the killer robots are hardly slick pieces of military hardware; both dog and drone appear to be off-the-shelf pieces of consumer technology with a conventional gun literally bolted on top. The dog has the brand name of the Chinese company that built it, Unitree Robotics, clearly visible on the side.

Prices for the company’s Go2 robot dog start at $1,600 (£1,300), according to Unitree’s website. The company denied selling products to the Chinese military. It is unclear how the military obtained the dog.

A Chinese soldier tests a robot dog before equipping it with a machine gun. Cambodia and China kicked off their annual Golden Dragon military exercise on Thursday. Photo: Heng Sinith/AP

The robot dog archetype was initially developed and popularized by Boston Dynamics, at one point a Google subsidiary. It has long had connections with the US military, with its initial version “robot quadruped”, BigDog, which is being developed as a potential mechanical pack animal for the military. But the company, which was sold by Google to Softbank in 2017 and then to Hyundai in 2020, has always shied away from actively weaponizing its technology.

According to Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert, who spoke at the AI Seoul Summit last week there are “about 1,500” of the company’s “Spot” dogs around the world. “But recently, other robotics companies have just built some incredible robots,” Raibert said. “It’s very exciting to go from the research lab to commercialization.”

This “jumping out” also means that Boston Dynamics’ refusal to weaponize its technology no longer prevents militaries and law enforcement from acquiring their own armed robots. In 2021, Ghost Robotics demonstrated a Vision 60 robot dog armed with a custom gun built by Sword Internationaland by 2023 the US military has confirmed that it is actively investigating how to use such a system in the field. In 2022, China demonstrated another weapon-carrying robot – carried by a drone and deposited in a training center.

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But while the systems are robotic, they are not yet typically autonomous. The CCTV video shows the Go2 dog being controlled by a soldier using a handheld device. The concern for many observers is what happens if and when that human link is reduced, with AI systems able to act faster and with lower latency than a human operator can.

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