A robot police dog will visit you if you are homeless and need temporary shelter in Hawaii’s capital. It will check your eyes to ensure you don’t have any fever.
This is just one way public safety agencies can use Spot, a popular new commercial robot that twirls with animal-like agility.
A few police officers are testing the four-legged robots. They say they are just another tool to keep emergency workers safe as they search for dangers. Privacy watchdogs, the human kind, warn that the police are secretly trying to purchase the robots without establishing safeguards against dehumanizing, aggressive or invasive uses.
Honolulu’s police department spent $150,000 on federal pandemic relief money in order to purchase their Spot from Boston Dynamics. It will be used at a government-run tent town near the airport.
Jongwook Kim (legal director, American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii) stated that because these people are homeless it is considered okay to do so. “It will be available for another purpose at some point after the pandemic has ended.”
The robot’s use was defended by Acting Lieutenant Joseph O’Neal, a member of the Honolulu Police Department’s Community Outreach Unit. It has been used to protect shelter staff, officers and residents by scanning body temperatures between meals at shelters where homeless people can quarantine and be tested for COVID-19. It can also be used remotely to interview positive individuals.
O’Neal stated that “We haven’t had one person out there that said, ‘That’s scary, That’s worrisome.'” “We don’t just wander around and randomly scan people.”
These robots are still uncommon and untested, and have not always been well received by the public. Honolulu officials faced a backlash when a local news organization, Honolulu Civil Beat, revealed that the Spot purchase was made with federal relief money.
The New York Police Department began using Spot in late last year after renaming it Digidog and painting it blue. New Yorkers started to spot it in the wild, and posted videos to social media. Spot quickly became a viral sensation and the police department had to return Digidog to his owner.
Jamaal Bowman, a Democratic U.S. Representative, said in April that “this is some Robocop material, this is crazy.” After a video of the robot performing with officers responding to a report on domestic violence at a Manhattan high-rise housing project, he was one of many New York politicians to speak up.
After further scrutiny by elected officials, the department announced that it would be ending its lease and returning robot. Public officials claimed that the expensive machine was delivered to over-policed public housing without any explanation or notice. The high-tech dog also clashed against Black Lives Matter’s calls to defund police operations, and reinvest in priorities.
Boston Dynamics, the company that makes these robots, claims it has learned from New York’s mistakes and is now trying to better explain to the public and its customers what Spot can do and cannot. This is becoming more important since Boston Dynamics, a subsidiary of South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Company, has closed an $880m deal to acquire a controlling stake.
In an interview, Michael Perry, vice-president of business development at Boston Dynamics said that one of the biggest challenges in accurately describing technology’s state to people who have not had any personal experience with it. “Most people apply science fiction concepts to what the robot is doing.”
Spot, a Dutch national police officer, explained the technology to one of its customers. Spot is well-behaved, but not as smart, and that’s what they are looking for.
Marjolein Schmit, director of special operations at the Dutch national police, stated that the robot doesn’t think for it self. It will follow your instructions if you tell it to move to the left. It will stop if you tell it to.
Her police division sent its Spot to the scene of the deadly explosion at a drug lab near the Belgian border earlier this year in order to inspect for other dangers.
Perry stated that the acceptable use guidelines of the company prohibit Spot from weaponization and any other violation of privacy or civil rights laws. This puts the Honolulu Police in good standing. It’s all part of a year-long effort by Boston Dynamics, which for decades relied on military research grants, to make its robots seem friendlier and thus more palatable to local governments and consumer-oriented businesses.
Ghost Robotics, a rival company based in Philadelphia, is not afraid to weaponize and supplies its robot-like dogs to the U.S military and its allies.
Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh said, “It’s plug and play. Anything you want.” He was critical of Boston Dynamics’ ethical principles as “selective ethics” due to its past involvement in the military.
Parikh said that although his company does not market the four-legged robots to law enforcement agencies, he believes it would be a good idea for them to be used by police. He explained that it’s essentially a camera on a smartphone.
There are approximately 500 Spot robots out there. Perry stated that they are used by utilities to inspect high voltage zones and other dangerous areas. Spot can also be used to monitor factories, mines, and construction sites. It is equipped with the appropriate sensor for the job.
Although it is still controlled mostly by humans, they only have to tell it where to go. It can also intuitively climb stairs and cross over uneven terrain. However, it can operate autonomously if it has a route memorized and there aren’t many surprises.
Perry stated that “the first value most people see in the robot” is taking someone out of dangerous situations.
Kim of the ACLU Hawaii acknowledged the possibility that such machines could have legitimate uses, but suggested that it is unlikely that police robots will be allowed to interact with citizens. He pointed to how Dallas police in 2016 stuck explosives on a wheeled robot to kill a sniper, fueling an ongoing debate about “killer robots” in policing and warfighting.
Kim stated that robots could increase militarization of police departments, and then use it in unacceptable ways. Kim said, “Maybe it isn’t something we want law enforcement to have.”