New York City City council member Ben Kallos says he “watched in horror” last month when police responded to a hostage situation in the Bronx using Boston Dynamics“Digidog, a remote-controlled robot dog equipped with surveillance cameras. Digidog photos are gone viral on Twitter, partly because of their strange resemblance with Doomsday Machines in Netflix Sci-Fi Series Black mirror.
Now Kallos is proposing what could be the country’s first law prohibiting police from owning or operating the robots armed with weapons.
“I don’t think anyone was anticipating that they would actually be used by the NYPD right now,” Kallos says. “I have no problem using a robot to defuse a bomb, but it has to be the right use of a tool and the right kind of circumstance.”
Kallos’ bill would not ban unarmed utility robots like the Digidog, only armed robots. But robotics experts and ethicists say he tapped into concerns about the growing militarization of the police: their growing access to sophisticated robots through private vendors and a controversial military equipment pipeline. Massachusetts and Hawaii Police test the Digidog too.
“Non-lethal robots could very well turn into lethal robots,” says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences group at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Lin briefed CIA employees on autonomous weapons during the Obama administration and supports the ban on armed robots. He is concerned about their increased availability.
“Robots can save police lives, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “But we also have to be careful that it doesn’t make a police force more violent.”
In the Bronx incident last month, police used Digidog to gather information on the house where two men were holding two others hostage, exploring hiding places and tight corners. Police eventually apprehended the suspects, but privacy advocates have expressed concerns about the robot’s technical capabilities and policies governing its use.
The ACLU asked why the Digidog was not listed on the police department’s disclosure of surveillance devices under a municipal law passed last year. The robot was only mentioned in passing in a section on “situational awareness cameras”. The ACLU called this disclosure “Very insufficient”, criticizing the “weak data protection and training sections” regarding Digidog.
In a statement, the NYPD said it “has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage-taking and hazardous materials incidents. This robot model is being tested to assess its capabilities against other models used by our Emergency Service Unit and Bomb Squad. Boston Dynamics did not respond to a request for comment.
Local response to the use of the Digidog has been mixed, said council member Kevin Riley, who represents the Bronx neighborhood where the incident occurred. Some residents opposed the use of the robot by the police and others wanted a more human police presence. A third group believed that robots could help prevent police misconduct by creating a distance between officers and suspects.
Riley says he continues to speak with residents, who want to feel safe in the neighborhood. “It’s our job as elected officials to educate residents and make sure they have a seat at the table,” during the discussions, he told WIRED.
The diversity of concerns reflects those of Dallas in 2016. In a confrontation with a sniper, local law enforcement used a robot to remotely throw and detonate an explosive device, killing it. The sniper shot and killed five police officers.
The incident has raised questions about how the police acquire robots. Dallas Police had at least three bomb robots in 2016. Two were acquired from defense contractor Northrop Grumman, according to Reuters. The third has come by the federal government’s 1033 program, which allows transfer surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Since 1997, more than 8,000 police departments have received more than $ 7 billion in equipment.