When talking to Jason Fiorillo about his job, it’s hard not to think about every robot-centric sci-fi movie that’s been released. Fiorillo is the chief legal officer for Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics, a robotics design company that is bringing the robots of our dreams to life through its unique, futuristic inventions.
Unlike the luxurious corporate digs which often ensconce a general counsel, the entire back wall of Fiorillo’s office is made of tempered glass which overlooks the “Spot Lab,” where dozens of Boston Dynamics’ eponymous quadrupeds traverse stairs, open doors, flip switches, turn cranks, and every so often, practice a new dance routine.
But beyond its daily duties, Fiorillo sees a higher calling for his company’s technology. “We have a responsibility to ensure that robots and humans can work together safely and effectively,” he says. “The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of essential workers and demonstrated new ways in which our robots can be used as tools to help humans stay safe.”
If this was a sci-fi story or screenplay (think I, Robot), this would be the cue for the robots’ red lights to illuminate, indicating malevolent intentions. But Fiorillo pushes back against the sci-fi narrative of uprising robots. “R2-D2 and C-3PO were very handy droids,” he says. “Wall-E and Baymax and Star Trek’s ‘Mr. Data’ all show robots that reflect the goodness in humanity.”
Science-based fact, in this case, is considerably more interesting than any fiction, and the company continually strives to show the world how helpful a robot can be to take people out of harm’s way.
Spot, the company’s first commercially available robot is an autonomous, dog-like machine that completes routine inspection tasks, captures data, and can also dance. The company’s latest robot, Stretch, can help streamline warehouse operations by reaching for and picking up boxes. At any point in his workday, Fiorillo can look out his window and watch them go. “It’s the coolest thing,” he says.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that robots and humans can work together safely and effectively.”
Fiorillo joined Boston Dynamics in 2019. Combining an early love of sci-fi films like Star Trek and Star Wars with his lifelong interest in law and technology, his role at Boston Dynamics is “the culmination of my experience to date,” he says.
Fiorillo studied electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was part of a prestigious five-year master’s program working for an engineering company for which he had a paid position over the summer and then he would have a job there after five years with his degree paid for. “My role as a summer intern was to write code in a refrigerated space all day long,” Fiorillo says with a laugh. “It was cool, but I was looking for something a bit more social.”
He embarked on a new plan: he studied for the LSAT to get into law school. He did well and applied to his two top schools (Harvard and Stanford). He chose to attend the latter. Out of law school, he accepted a position as a corporate attorney for a firm that specialized in mergers and acquisitions.
“It was very challenging,” Fiorillo says, “but I learned a lot. The first year, it was being at an all-you-can-eat legal buffet every single day; there was more than you could possibly handle.”
Naturally, the eighteen-hour days, every day, threw his work/life balance out of whack. So, he opted to explore intellectual property and worked for a few years at an IP boutique firm until his wife got a job offer she couldn’t refuse in Boston.
Fiorillo rebounded after the powerhouse law firm he worked for, Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault, dissolved, and in 2007, he joined Analog Devices. By the time he departed in 2019, he was responsible for the company’s global commercial legal matters, intellectual property strategy, and litigation. “Analog Devices was a great springboard to prepare me for life at Boston Dynamics,” he says.
“As far back as the ’90s, I would see the fantastic creations [Boston Dynamics] put together. I was blown away.”
Boston Dynamics had long been on Fiorillo’s radar. The founders of the company came from the Leg Lab at MIT. “As far back as the ’90s, I would see the fantastic creations they put together,” he says. “I was blown away.” So when they were on the cusp of producing Spot for commercial use, Fiorillo “jumped in with both feet” and was asked to join the company.
In June 2021, Hyundai acquired a controlling interest in Boston Dynamics, opening the doors for the company to help define the future of mobility. Fiorillo’s week is split between M&A work, handling Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) regulations, commercial alliances, and articulating the company’s code of robot ethics.
Considering how robots are often portrayed as malevolent creatures in pop culture, Fiorillo insists that some Hollywood memes are incomplete. To disband these stereotypes about human/robot interaction, the company recently posted on its website its “Statement of Robot Ethical Principles.” Among them: “We prioritize the human element in human-robot partnerships,” “We build trustworthy robots,” and “We promote . . . laws and regulations that promote the safe and responsible use of robots.”
As an author of this statement, and the force behind the company’s similarly focused term and conditions of sale, Fiorillo reflects on this work with pride. “These documents illustrate key principles that drive our company.”
Fiorillo also credits his amazingly strong team of lawyers, paralegals, and safety personnel for helping him to succeed at his job. “They’re all rock stars in their own rights. My job is to make sure they are supported, motivated, and directed and that all of our incentives are aligned,” he says.
Outside of work, like any good robot caregiver, Fiorillo occasionally takes Spot out for a walk. On one particularly memorable occasion, he says, “My children were involved in a weekend program at MIT for middle school students. We took Spot and walked through the hallways. I let my daughter pilot Spot and she felt like a superstar. That’s the type of magic we’re bringing to the world.”