The creeping normalization of robotic law enforcement officials
NYPD / Instagram
The 1987 classic film RoboCop is slated to set in about 20 years from now, but it looks like 2021 will mark the start of the robot law enforcement era. A growing number of police departments across the country are buying robots for police work and when this behavior normalizes, major concerns will arise.
The NYPD bought a robot dog earlier this year that appears to be able to open doors. The same type of robot police dog was tested by the Massachusetts State Police. Police agency use of drones has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Police agencies across the country have bought the Knightscope robot, which apparently enjoys walking over children’s feet and ignores people who need help.
“The slow introduction of these robots as a fun novelty will absolutely normalize a type of surveillance performed by robots and algorithms.”
Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Digital Trends that the types of robots that law enforcement agencies use are mostly on display. However, this does not mean that there is nothing to be concerned about. He has done an in-depth study of the companies selling these robots, arguing that these robots are largely a “PR move” at this point. While pretty harmless right now, even these PR stunt police robots could open the door to something we should be concerned about.
MA State Police
“We saw from the inside that the companies that sell these robots, most of what they sell, rely on social media engagement and good press for your department,” says Guariglia. “It’s very little about the actual monitoring that the robot can perform. I think if you slowly introduce these robots as fun novelties that you can use to take selfies, some kind of surveillance done by robots and algorithms will absolutely normalize. “
You may find a robot police dog cute or funny when a robot police officer falls into a well, but what these machines could bring us closer to us is far more harmful. Guariglia says we could see various types of police robots proliferating soon and accountability could become a major problem.
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“I worry when we leave the stage where police robots are only photo opportunities. We will at some point have to deal with the scenario where robots that the police have to make have to make decisions, and when a police robot makes the wrong decision – someone gets injured or the wrong person is arrested – police robots are not humans “, Says Guariglia, “You cannot blame them.”
What if the robot mistakenly identifies them as criminals and arrests them? Who is blamed for this? You can’t fire a robot or charge a crime.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we saw robotic police dogs with pepper spray on their backs during protests. “
Guariglia also notes that these robots can easily be fitted with all kinds of surveillance technology and could become “moving surveillance towers”. He says a robot could be assigned to a high-crime neighborhood for near-constant surveillance and calling the police if there is any suspicion that it has been identified as a criminal, whether or not it has a criminal.
Imagine walking down the street and a police robot orders you to stop. It thinks you are wanted for a crime and calls the police. The police will come and take you to jail. They will be released as soon as they find out they have arrested the wrong person. You blame the robot’s algorithm and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s a dystopian future that we could be rapidly approaching.
Additionally, Guariglia says we may not be too far from police robots starting to carry guns, which would make things even more difficult. He notes that a police robot was already equipped with C4 and killed a mass shooter in Dallas in 2016. So it is not unreasonable to assume that in the not too distant future we might see police robots with guns.
“In extenuating circumstances, the police are more than ready to arm robots with weapons on the spur of the moment, and we’ve seen proposals over the years to tasers or pepper spray on small flying drones. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we saw robot police dogs at protests with pepper spray on their backs, ”says Guariglia.
Eyewitness News / abc7NY
One possible solution to this problem would be communities preventing police departments from even getting these types of robots. A city could have a Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) regulation that would allow police to submit a motion to the city council specifying what type of technology they would like to buy before they can buy it. Guariglia says law enforcement agencies may be less inclined to buy this type of technology if they needed to get public approval.
“We need more transparency and public control over what the police authorities spend their money on,” says Guariglia.
We won’t see the types of humanoid robots patrolling our streets in RoboCop anytime soon, but police robots are becoming a reality and what seems harmless now could become very harmful in the near future. These robots could invade our privacy, mistakenly arrest people, and in certain circumstances even injure or kill people. It can all depend on how people react to this impending threat.