On April 22, 2021, following a public outcry, the City of New York Police Department (NYPD) terminated a $94,000 contract with Boston Dynamics to test a four-legged robotic “dog” that uses artificial intelligence — rather than a remote human operator — to navigate crime scenes.
The uproar — including a critical tweet from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) — followed an incident on February 23, 2021, when NYPD cops responded to a home invasion inna public housing building with the robotic surveillance device they nicknamed “Digidog.” Weighing 70 pounds, the robot is equipped with multiple cameras and is capable of running 3-1/2 miles per hour. Video of the “trotting” robot went viral, prompting criticism that it was an overly aggressive policing tactic.
Shortly afterward, on March 18, 2021, New York City Council members Ben Kallos and Vanessa Gibson introduced legislation to prohibit city law enforcement agencies from arming any autonomous devices employed in policing. Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) agreed that the city needed to “rethink the equation” because of citizens’ fear of “Digidog.”
By contract, Boston Dynamics prevents customers from using its robots to harm humans, which could potentially save police officers’ lives. In exchange, however, critics say the robots pose new dangers if used not just for surveillance but also for responding to disturbances with lethal force.
As writer Matthew Guariglia noted in an essay for the Electronic Freedom Frontier, “mission creep is very real” when it comes to police use of technologies, with those “given to police to use only in the most extreme circumstances” inevitably ending up used “during protests or to respond to petty crime.”
For example, the “stingray” cell-site simulator — originally developed to turn terrorists’ cellphones against them to pinpoint their location on foreign battlefields — was brought back to the U.S. and used by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Michigan to locate and arrest undocumented immigrant Rudy Caracamo Carranza in March 2017. Baltimore police used the same technology in February 2013 to nab Deon Batty, who was also not a terrorist but rather suspected of stealing $56.77 worth of pizza and chicken wings.
Adding weaponry to these devices, Guariglia argues, would only increase the chances for a level of human harm disproportionate to any crime committed.
Sources: CNet.com, Human Rights Watch, Electronic Freedom Frontier, Capital News Service
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