Byte worse than its bark? Armed robot dogs don’t belong in the US police – Black Mirror is not an instruction manual for officers
Unleashing weaponized robotic dogs to supplant the US’s metastasizing police forces is not just a bad idea – it’s a disastrous move that will vastly compound the levels of human suffering for which cops are responsible.
“DigiDog,” the nickname given to Boston Dynamics’ robo-canine monster by the New York Police Department, has been tested over the last year by the agency for its ability to see in the dark, assess threats, and otherwise perform policing duties human officers cannot. Hailed for its usefulness by the NYPD’s emergency service and bomb squad units, it was singled out last week by New York City Council member Ben Kallos, who called for a unilateral ban on the use of “robots armed wit ha weapon” in a manner “likely to cause death or serious physical injury.“
Kallos unveiled the No Killer Robots Act in an effort to crack down on the use of secretive surveillance and technology tools, with New York one of three American states (along with Massachusetts and Hawai’i) that have made a not-so-subtle show of testing the quadruped attack dogs in public.
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New York’s City Council passed its Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act in June, in what was ostensibly an effort to keep citizens informed about their police force’s use of armed robots and other technological advances and to give them a say in how such tactics are rolled out, though the dog’s recent reappearance last month at the site of a home invasion would suggest the NYPD hasn’t been adhering particularly strongly to the rule.
The No Killer Robots Act would be the country’s first law barring police from deploying armed robots against citizens in the streets, though Boston Dynamics has implied Spot is really just a friendly, if expensive at $74,500, little surveillance puppy. Not to be confused with the ferocious dog-like robots who hunt down helpless humans in the 2011 Black Mirror episode – that’s just fiction, got it?
“All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon,” Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Player declares in the company’s terms of service. Given the NYPD and its fellow police force’s general disinclination to adhere to inconveniences like laws, especially those involving murder, however, it’s unlikely that mere terms of service will keeps the city’s cops from venturing into the legal no-man’s-land of unleashing the killer potential of a herd of wild Spots.
Even Kallos has clarified he’s not 100% against the idea of using Spot (or DigiDog, or whatever cuddly name the NYPD opts to ultimately slap on its four-legged supersoldiers) to perform tasks that would be considered dangerous for humans, like deactivating a bomb – only “weaponized robots” would be off limits under his bill.
But the possibility for armed robots to snowball into tools of suppression and terror is a very real risk, as California Polytechnic University’s director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group, Patrick Lin, told Wired earlier this month.
“Robots can save police lives, and that’s a good thing. But we also need to be careful it doesn’t make a police force more violent,” Lin explained.
Drone warfare has made the Pentagon less apprehensive about recklessly diving into new conflicts, knowing that the worst that could happen to the US military is one of its unmanned aerial killers being shot out of the sky, even as its adversary – say, Libya – is catapulted into a horrific nightmare replete with open-air slave markets and refugees regularly drowning off the coast. So, too, a police force comprised of mechanized dogs of war would avoid the macabre spectacle of coffins being marched down the street in a multi-officer funeral.
So what’s to stop DigiDog being given a tool to incapacitate the bomber after it defuses the bomb? Given the human instinct to recoil from these beasts, inhabitants of the uncanny valley as they unapologetically are, it will be awfully tempting for police (after losing bot after bot to creeped-out citizens unable to resist the urge to soak the vile creatures in saltwater, shorting their circuits) to start acting on the urge to fight back. Playter notes optimistically that “robots will achieve long-term commercial viability only if people see robots as helpful, beneficial tools without worrying if they’re going to cause harm.” Fat chance.
The possibility that flesh-and-blood police officers will instinctively treat their robot partners as normal K-9s also elevates the risk that Boston Dynamics’ inanimate objects will be protected with the same degree of solicitousness as real live K-9s – leaving open the possibility that the “lives” of bot K-s will be avenged with the same ferocity as the real things – defeating the entire purpose of using them, as humans are murdered for “killing” non-living machines. $74,500 isn’t cheap, either – plus whatever added cost covers the weapon attachments – and there’s always the possibility cops will take it upon themselves to enact vengeance on civilians who trash their artificial partners, worried about having the cost docked from their pay.
There’s also the risk that robot dogs will be smuggled in through the side door, introduced as seemingly innocuous tools for maintaining ‘soft’ mandates like Covid-19 social distancing – a job they performed in Singapore with creepy but effective panache. But what’s to stop silicon K-9s from jumping the behavioral boundaries humans are innately programmed with – the instinctive aversion to killing one’s fellow man, say, or wiping out real dogs in the manner police officers seem so keen on?
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Ultimately, Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs are creatures of their programmers. If one believes – as the Black Lives Matter slogan goes – that “all cops are bastards,” that umbrella will cover any artificial intelligence programmed by those officers. A bad apple is a bad apple, and a bad pooch is a bad pooch, no matter how much surplus cute-factor is ladled onto the basic framework the creatures are outfitted with.
If anything, the lack of presence of an actual human intelligence operating the dog implies a greater lack of responsibility, as the officers know they can get away with proportionally more misdeeds the further they are distanced from the machines they’re operating. Essentially, the problems of drone warfare will be writ large and set loose running through American streets.
Just as police officers who’ve served in the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan – or undergone “counter-terror” training in Israel – later treat the people they’re tasked with “serving and protecting” like second-class citizens, shooting first and asking questions later, nothing good will come of bringing drone warfare home to the US.
Armed drones have no place in the United States and must be banned before the first weaponized silicon canine sinks its teeth – or shoots its bullets – into an innocent human being.
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