Would you trust a Robocop?

Posted by Flux on 

11 November 2015


The recent behaviour of the police towards some students during the various #feesmustfall protest marches around the country, threw the spotlight on heavy handed police action again, when the scars of the Marikana massacre have barely healed. Analysts have said their reaction was due to inefficient police intelligence, which resulted in them being unprepared and overwhelmed. However, in the next few years, technology will be assisting law enforcement in the form of police robots. Robocop, the movie, is about to become a reality.

Robots are already being used to disable or detonate bombs, but these bots have been rapidly evolving. The next step is autonomous and mobile surveillance. We’ve become accustomed to our streets being monitored by CCTV, and we may even feel safer for it, but what happens when that kind of surveillance morphs into a roving R2D2-type robot (as seen in the Star Wars movies)?

In Silicone Valley a company called Knightscope is already testing a prototype robot designed to detect and monitor criminal activity, much the way a patrolling police officer would. K5 is a five-foot-tall autonomous robot that could soon be roaming around your neighborhood. It doesn’t carry any weaponry, but it has sophisticated software and sensors that includes thermal imaging, license plate scanning (it can scan 1500 plates per minute), facial recognition and the ability to capture audio with 360-degree video vision. It can also test the air for chemicals, maps its surroundings with 3D radar and laser, and is programmed to continually learn to distinguish “suspicious activities” from normal activities. These robots will soon be recording people’s actions and conversations in public places, so personal privacy issues will be taken to another level.

But it’s not just in Silicone Valley where robot law enforcement is being planned. Earlier this year Dubai police announced that they would have Robocops on the beat by 2017. The intentions sound benevolent. Colonel Khalid Nasser Alrazooq explained at the announcement that “The robots will interact directly with people and tourists. They will include an interactive screen and microphone connected to the Dubai Police call centers. People will be able to ask questions and make complaints, but they will also have fun interacting with the robots. But”, he added, “they’ll rapidly get more intelligent”.

Artificial intelligence is what makes many people nervous, including physicist Stephen Hawking and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk both of who (along with over 1000 engineers) signed a letter in June this year warning about the negative consequences of artificial intelligence (AI) and the natural evolution of autonomous warfare. If you’ve seen Robocop the movie, you’ll have a vivid idea of their concerns.

However, before we reach a future where robots gain AI, there is a stopgap – of sorts – that will be cold comfort for the bot-phobic. Florida International University (FIU) is currently testing a 6-foot tall interactive robot specially designed to help disabled officers and veterans return to the field. This “Telebot” looks more “humanoid”, with a swiveling head and dexterous fingers, and is controlled remotely by a person wearing an Oculus Rift headset and motion-tracking vest, armbands, and gloves. The voice of the operator is transmitted through the robot, so in essence it enables remote controlled policing. It’s intimidating size is deliberate so that it can command a sense of authority, so it’s logical that these kinds of robots could effectively replace the front line of a riot squad.

Even in Africa the first evidence of robotic law enforcement has already appeared. In the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, robot traffic officers are already part of daily life. In 2013 traffic authorities installed a humanoid robot that could regulate traffic at a pedestrian crossing on one of the city’s main boulevards. This rudimentary, but imposing (2.5 meter tall), traffic-bot has been so successful that the city now has 5 traffic-bots, which have all evolved technologically and are now, not only solar powered, but have rotating torsos and video cameras built into their eyes that send footage back to a central office. The functional parallels with the Knightscope and the FIU Telebot are unmistakable.

But robotic law enforcement is not restricted to ground based Robocops. With drone technology rapidly evolving, concepts like the Skunk Riot Control Copter – made by a Pretoria based company – is specifically designed to monitor and control unruly crowds. The remote controlled drone is able to fire up to 20 paintball or pepper spray rounds per minute from each of its four barrels, and has additional features like strobe lights and lasers designed to disorient protesters. If the militarisation of a police force seemed scary, the mechanisation of a police force is going to be terrifying.

In Kinshasa, officials say that since the installation of the traffic-bots, traffic problems around the robots have been eased. Residents have also responded positively to the robots, adding that they mistrusted the human traffic officers. But when Robocops walk amongst us, whom would you trust more: a trigger-panicked human police officer, or a Robocop with artificial intelligence?

By: Dion Chang

About Dion Chang

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