Robotic police dogs: Useful dogs or dehumanizing machines?


HONOLULU (AP) – If you’re homeless and looking for temporary shelter in Hawaii’s capital, a robotic police dog may visit you, who will scan your eye to make sure you don’t have a fever.

It’s just one of the ways public safety agencies are starting to use Spot, the best-known of a new category of commercial robots that walks around with animal-like agility.

A handful of police officers who have experimented with quadrupedal machines say they are just another vehicle, such as existing drones and simple wheeled robots, to keep emergency responders out of harm’s way while investigating hazards. But privacy watchdogs — the human species — warn that police are rushing to buy robots covertly without protection against offensive, invasive or dehumanizing use.

In Honolulu, the police department spent nearly $150,000 in federal pandemic relief money to purchase their Spot from robotics firm Boston Dynamics for use in a government-run tent city near the airport.

“It’s considered appropriate to do this because these people are homeless,” he said. Jongwook KimLegal director of the Hawaiian American Civil Liberties Union. “At some point, it will reappear for a different use after the pandemic is over.”

Lieutenant Joseph O’Neal of the Honolulu Police Department’s outreach unit advocated the use of the robot in a media show earlier this year. In a shelter where the homeless can quarantine and get tested for COVID-19, he said he protects officers, shelter staff and residents by scanning their body temperatures between mealtimes. The robot is also used to conduct remote interviews with people who test positive.

“There hasn’t been a single person out there saying, ‘This is scary, this is worrisome,'” O’Neal said. “We don’t just go around and arbitrarily scan people.”

Police use of such robots is still rare and largely untested and not always well received by the public. Honolulu officials faced a backlash when the Honolulu Civil Beat, a local news outlet, revealed that the Spot purchase was made with federal aid money.

Late last year, the New York Police Department began using the Spot after painting it blue and renaming it “Digidog.” It mostly went unnoticed until New Yorkers started noticing it in the wild and posting videos on social media. The spot quickly became a sensation, attracting a public outcry that led the police department to abruptly return the Digidog to its maker.

“This is some Robocop stuff, this is crazy,” was the reaction of Democratic US Representative Jamaal Bowman in April. He was one of several New York politicians to speak out after a widely shared video showed him walking with police officers in response to a report of domestic violence in a Manhattan high-rise housing estate.

Days later, after further scrutiny by elected city officials, the department said it was ending the lease and returning the robot. Public officials said the expensive machine came with little public warning or explanation and was deployed in already over-polished housing estates. The use of high-tech dogs has also clashed with Black Lives Matter calls to fund police operations and reinvest in other priorities.

Boston Dynamics, the company that makes the robots, says it learned from the New York debacle and is trying to better explain what Spot can and cannot do to the public and its customers. This became more and more important as Boston Dynamics became part of the South Korean automaker. Hyundai Motor CompanyIn June, it signed a $880 million deal for a controlling stake in the robotics firm.

“One of the biggest challenges is accurately describing the state of technology to people who have no personal experience with it,” said Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, in an interview. “Most people apply sci-fi concepts to what the robot does.”

Explaining the technology to one of their clients, the Dutch national police, involves emphasizing that Spot is a very good robot – well-behaved and ultimately not all that smart.

“He doesn’t think for himself,” said Marjolein Smit, director of the special operations unit of the Dutch national police, about the remote-controlled robot. “If you tell him to go left, he will go left. If you tell him to stop, he will stop.”

Earlier this year, the police department sent Spot to the site of a deadly drug lab explosion near the Belgian border to check for dangerous chemicals and other hazards.

Perry said the company’s acceptable use guidelines prohibit the Spot from gunning or anything that would violate privacy or civil rights laws, making it clear to the Honolulu police. It’s all part of a decades-long effort by Boston Dynamics, which has relied on military research grants for decades, to make its robots friendlier and therefore more palatable to local governments and consumer-focused businesses.

In contrast, a lesser-known competitor, Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics, has no reservations about armament and supplies its dog-like robots to various branches of the US military and its allies.

“Just plug and play, whatever you want,” said Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh, who described Boston Dynamics’ ethical principles as “selective ethics” due to the company’s past relationship with the military.

Parikh said his company does not market its quadrupedal robots to police departments, but it would make sense for the police to use them. “It’s basically a camera on a mobile device,” he said.

There are currently about 500 Spot robots in the wild. Perry said these are commonly used by utility companies to inspect high-voltage areas and other hazardous areas. The spot is also used to monitor construction sites, mines and factories equipped with sensors necessary for the job.

It’s still mostly controlled by humans, but all they have to do is tell it which way to go and it can intuitively climb stairs or traverse rough terrain. It can also operate autonomously, but only if it has already memorized an assigned route and there are not too many surprise obstacles.

“The first value most people see in a robot is to get a person out of a dangerous situation,” Perry said.

whoHe acknowledged from the ACLU in Hawaii that there could be many legitimate uses for such machines, but said that opening the door to police robots interacting with humans is probably not a good idea. He He drew attention to how Dallas police planted explosives on a wheeled robot to kill a sniper in 2016, fueling an ongoing debate about “killer robots” in policing and warfare.

“These robots have the potential to increase the militarization of police departments and use that in unacceptable ways.” who aforementioned. “Maybe it’s not something we want to let law enforcement have.”

AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island.

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