The Rise of the Police Robot [Video]

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police robotIt is the beginning of the robotics revolution, and the controversial effects of this shift can already be observed worldwide in the field of law enforcement. Here are but three examples: PackBots will be deployed at the 2014 FIFA World Cup; Robots are acting as traffic cops in the Congo; and automatons in the U.S. are roaming around malls, businesses, and other public places. While privacy watchdog groups and police associations oppose law enforcement’s increasing reliance on robotics, others place their emphasis squarely on the resulting reduction in crime and warmly embrace the rise of the police robot.

PackBots, the same robots used in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq and to assess the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japanpolice robot, will be stationed throughout the World Cup’s 12 host cities in Brazil. They will boost security during soccer matches and assist in the examination of suspicious objects. Meanwhile, in the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are two, large solar-powered, non-human traffic cops. Unlike the humans that held the job before, each police robot generates income by using its cameras to record violators who will then be ticketed. Kinshasa is the third largest urban area in Africa, so the income potential is substantial. The engineer behind the project, President of Women’s Technology Therese Ir Izay Kirongozi, said that their country is poor and that the government needs to recover its money for the roads it has built. Commuter Demouto Mutombo expressed his preference for the police robot: “When the traffic police control the cars here there’s still a lot of traffic.” But the robot has changed drivers’ attitudes, said Mutombo, “Since the robot arrived, we see truly that the commuters are respectful.” It is unknown whether this is due to its size and intimidating appearance or the promise that, according to Kirongozi, “there will be a ticket” for drivers who decide they are “not going to respect the robot because it’s just a machine.”

This year in the U.S., a robotic startup company called Knightscope is equipping a dozen beta customers with a 300-pound roaming robot called K5. Its name comes from a combination of two facts:  it is five feet tall and its intention is to assist first responders and security personnel similar to the way a K-9 officer does. K5, though, is autonomous. Using sensors to avoid hitting people and objects, its laser photographically maps in 3D the area it patrols. It has four cameras, 360 degree day and night vision, thermal imaging, and optical character and gesture recognition. It will cruise at five miles per hour but can reach speeds over three times that number. The robots are part of a full-service product similar to what an alarm company offers, said Li. For 24-hour surveillance, the monthly fee breaks down to $6.25 per hour. Knightscope’s goal is to “cut the crime rate by 50% in a geo-fenced area.” The company’s CEO William Li is passionate about reducing crime. “I’m tired,” said Li, “of turning on the T.V….and seeing some new absurd thing happen across our country.”

The watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center has expressed its concerns that K5 has “an unbounded capacity to collect personal information that a single patrol officer doesn’t.” The group’s executive director Marc Rotenberg said that laws have not been updated “to acknowledge these technologies.” Along with police robots like K5, Rotenberg includes Google’s mapping cars and closed-circuit television (CCTV) as companies that need to “act responsibly.” The executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations added to Rotenberg’s concerns. “Technology is useful, but it can’t be a substitute,” said Bill Johnson. Li has responded many times to similar sentiments. He iterated that a K5 robot will not substitute law enforcement but act in concert with it.

The compromise between these two points of view is the use of body cameras by police officers. These cameras run for 12 hours and have a 130-degree field of view. People can ask the police to turn them off, and they are built to be tamper-proof. Body cameras record evidence and assist in identifying perpetrators, which has lead to a reduced need to go to trial, more guilty pleas, and fewer cases falling apart. In Rialto, California, the consequence of police body cameras has been a 59 percent reduction in the use of force and and 87.5 percent reduction in complaints.

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However, Li feels that using a police robot to assist law enforcement is quickly becoming mandatory. The 7 billion people on the planet will soon enough rise to a few billion more, and “law enforcement is not going to scale at the same rate” because, says Li, “we can’t afford it.”

By Donna Westlund

Al Jazeera
USA Today