New York lawmaker wants to ban police use of armed robots
New York City City Councilor Ben Kallos says he “watched in horror” last month when city 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, in part due to 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 workers on autonomous weapons during the Obama administration and supports the ban on armed robots. He fears that their increased availability poses a serious problem.
“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 tight hiding places and nooks and crannies. Police eventually apprehended the suspects, but privacy advocates have expressed concerns about the robot’s technical capabilities and policies governing its use.
The ACLU wondered 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. ”
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 the 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 mirrors 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.