Robocops Are Here (but Not as You Think)
Robots are being increasingly introduced in a range of policing scenarios — but the situation might not quite be what you're imagining.
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For anyone who's a fan of dystopian action films of the 1980's, Robocop surely holds a pride of place. The plot is a fairly simple one: Detroit is owned by a huge corporation that decides to turn a murdered cop into a cyborg law enforcer. Is the film a predictor of future law enforcement? The answer is yes and no. Robots are being increasingly introduced in a range of policing scenarios, and the situation might not quite be what you're imagining. Here's a rundown:
Robocop: Your Friend and Helper
Last week saw the launch of the world's first autonomous Robocop at the Gulf Information Security Expo and Conference (GISEC). With cartoon-like facial features, Robocop stands at 5 feet, 5 inches and weighs 220 lbs (100 kg). He is embedded with AI to detect a person's emotions and facial expressions and to change his own facial expression and greetings accordingly. He possesses the capacity to map the insides of a building and navigate his path automatically via its self-control and drive feature. He communicates in six languages, can transmit and receive messages from police (including the ability to broadcast live feeds), and has a built-in tablet that can be used to pay fines and report crimes.
"With an aim to assist and help people in the malls or on the streets, the Robocop is the latest smart addition to the force and has been designed to help us fight crime, keep the city safe and improve happiness levels," says Brigadier-General Khalid Nasser Al Razzouqi, Director-General of Smart Services at Dubai Police.
I can't help feeling more than a little underwhelmed. It's a bit more like an information kiosk on wheels than a gun toting, crime fighting machine. It's more Pepper (who also is used for the front of house public inquiry tasks) than Chappie with no ability to halt or apprehend a criminal, complete with a friendly face so as not to scare the kids.
In Come the Private Security Daleks
Knightscope's Autonomous Data Machines (ADMs)were first deployed in shopping malls, campuses and public spaces in 2013. According to Knightscope, their role is to free police and security staff of boring, monotonous tasks:
“The human attention span during monotonous, boring tasks is only five to 10 minutes. And with employee turnover rates as high as 400%, the security industry is rightfully seeking innovative solutions. Knightscope’s primary goal is to allow customers to utilize the best of Silicon Valley to put machines to work in those routine, monotonous and sometimes dangerous situations, thus freeing up humans to do the more hands-on and strategic activities.”
The robots resemble a “Doctor Who” Dalek (or maybe a large mobile rubbish bin depending on your point of view) and they are deployed to gather important real-time, on-site data through numerous sensors including includes light detection and ranging (LIDAR) devices; high-definition, low-light video cameras; thermal imaging; automatic license plate recognition (ALPR); directional microphones; proximity sensors; inertial measurement unit; wheel encoders; and a global positioning system (GPS).
The K5 model is able to detect a vehicle backing up or tailing the machine in a parking lot setting. The robots are also programmed to detect suspicious and unusual behavior and can recall up to 300 number plates a minute, whilst monitoring traffic. The robots are equipped with a panic button for emergency scenarios when a real person is required.
However, they've not been without their controversy, with a robot knocking a child over last year and another attacked by a man later charged with public intoxication in April this year in Silicon Valley. The company's response to the attack:
"I think this is a pretty pathetic incident because it shows how spineless the drunk guys in Silicon Valley really are because they attack a victim who doesn't even have any arms," says Eamonn Callon.
Here Comes the Real
The most commonly used robots in policing of late actually look more like the remote control vehicles of your childhood than Robocop or Chappie. Companies like Endeavor Robotics provide battle-tested unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) to customers worldwide, wholly dedicated to serving customers in the defense, public safety, and energy and industrial markets. The robots come in a range of sizes and capabilities.
The 510 PackBot can perform bomb disposal, surveillance and reconnaissance and HazMat handling operations. They are currently deployed in Rio de Janero by police to help inspect suspicious packages left in metro stations and other potential bomb threats across the city. They also help police fight drug lords in city’s slums by removing and detonating the unexploded grenades that drug traffickers often leave behind in their battles with the police and rival gangs.
Is It Time Now for the Killer Robots?
In July last year, a robot was used to detonate a bomb in response to a police killing, ultimately leading to the death of Micah Johnson who killed five police officers and wound seven others in Dallas. The police attached a pound of the explosive C4 to the robot, creating a makeshift weapon out of a design that was not intended to inflict harm on people. Notably, the robot was also remote-controlled, not autonomous.
Perhaps the most controversial robotics company is Desert Wolf, makers of the Skunk Riot Control Copter, a drone designed to "control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff." It's equipped with four high-capacity paint ball barrels and can release up to 80 pepper balls per second stopping any crowd in its tracks. It's also equipped with blinding strobe lights and lasers and with onboard speakers enables communication and warnings to the crowd. The problem with their use is the potential for misuse. Who decides when the drones should be used? Could it be more about curtailing political dissent than crowd control? The makers claim operator and his team are under full video and audio surveillance but its potential abuse remains significant.
This, however, raises issues about the use of armed robots- in what scenarios should they be allowed? Who can decide on their use? Armed drones (effectively flying robots) have been legalized in North Dakota as long as they are "less than lethal-meaning that something like the SkunkRiot Control Copter would be legal. Since then, legislation was introduced to the House of Representatives in April this year to allow law enforcement agencies to use drones equipped with deadly weapons although it might take a while to come into effect. Then there are more questions than answers when you get into the potential for misuse of weapon-equipped robots and drones to be hacked or in the hands of public order offenders. It makes Atlas (my favorite robot) look positively cuddly by comparison.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.