A tech company based in Mountain View, California – in the heart of Silicon Valley – is deploying security robots to patrol public areas and other facilities, but the age of Robocop is not quite here yet. The autonomous robots, though equipped with an array of technology to monitor and navigate their surroundings, have no firepower and will not be taking on any bad guys, for the time being. Their use may spark concerns over privacy and the potential impact on jobs for humans but, for now, the K5 Autonomous Data Machines are a curiosity.
The five-foot-tall, 300 pound robots look like a modern version of the classic Dr. Who Daleks, but without the laser cannons; or, perhaps, a larger version of that annoying R2-D2 from Star Wars. to get around, they use ultrasonic sensors and a technology known as LIDAR, or light detection and ranging, that employs 3D mapping and calculates distance by targeting objects with light pulses. additionally, the K5 has 360-degree HD video capability, microphones, infra-red and thermal imaging capability, optical character recognition and even air quality sensors.
The company behind the project is Knightscope. Stacy Stephens, the project’s co-founder and Vice President of Marketing and Sales, revealed some basic details about how the units operate and react to incidents. “It will geofence itself and give itself a perimeter within which it will operate. And it moves around within that perimeter freely and it chooses its own path.” he explains. Knightscope is looking at deploying the robots in shopping malls, college campuses and outdoor, public areas. The K5 units have the ability to detect people crossing their path and will stop or move around the person. They are designed to avoid confrontation but do have an audible deterrent for a would-be attacker, which begins with “a loud chirp,” and increases in volume. “A very, very loud alarm. Think of a car alarm but much more intense.” says Stephens.
Although these security robots have no ability to physically intervene in a potentially dangerous situation or during the commission of a crime, their recorded video can be remotely monitored and their ability to gather and analyse other sensory information could act as a deterrent or could provide information helpful in the apprehension of criminals. Speaking with CBS News, Stephens explained how this might apply to a unit that is in close proximity to a break-in. “the robot is looking at the video, listening for glass breakage, any loud sound that breaking in would cause. We’ll get the license plate, picture of the vehicle, geotag location, and time,” he said.
The units themselves appear very non-threatening and Stephens says that the reaction of members of the public, so far, has been one of amusement, rather than apprehension: “The vast majority of people see it and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cute.’” he says. “We’ve had people go up and hug it, and embrace it for whatever reason.”
Two interesting questions arise, however, when considering the prospect of the wider use of such units: Will jobs in the security industry be taken by these robots? The company’s blog disputes the idea: Knightscope Chairman and CEO, William Santana Li, writes about robots being “the perfect tools to handle the monotonous and sometimes dangerous work,” and points out that humans will still be needed for “activities requiring higher-level thinking, hands-on encounters or tactical planning.”
The next question would be: How will the inevitable concerns over privacy be addressed? This would appear to be a far less easy question to answer, as the kind of proactive security that Li envisions will, inevitably, require the type of constant observation and information gathering which, but it’s very nature, will always border upon an infringement of the Fourth Amendment. In their current form, the K5 Autonomous Data Machine may not pose such a threat, but – inevitably – such a concept will be developed to a far more sophisticated level with greater observational capabilities. These security robots are not Robocop yet and every new technology is, historically, greeted with a healthy dose of concern, but how K5 evolves will be cause for both fascination and apprehension.
Opinion by Graham J Noble