Robotic Police in the United States: A Divisive Innovation

Rudy, Julia, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Elliott, Travis

The main problem that my thesis aimed to address is how can the U.S. integrate robotic autonomous systems to improve everyday life in the public sphere?
In the technical portion of the thesis, the problem was narrowed down to: how can autonomous sensors be used to reduce bike collisions with cars? Bikes are used across the world for fitness, recreation, and sustainable transportation. However, this utility is hampered by the risk presented by motorists on the road. To address this problem, my capstone team invented a simple bike radar unit “Sentiel” that helps protect cyclists from rear-end collisions. Using radar and an intuitive display unit mounted on the handlebars, the unit alerts cyclists of approaching vehicles long before they pose a risk, allowing riders avoid potential hazards. This device is designed specifically for riders who use bicycles for their daily commutes as well as people with auditory impairments which prevent them from interpreting auditory queues. The system can generate enough energy from our solar panel on a worst-case day to accommodate nearly all commuting use cases. The technical project fulfilled all 7 project goals: distance sensing (can detect objects up to 40m away), relative speed sensing (can detect if a car is approaching too fast), intuitive notification (always alerts based on sensor data), backup power storage (2 hours of backup power storage), native power generation (solar-powered), and weatherproofing.
In the Sociotechnical portion of my thesis the use of robotics in the police force was analyzed through the actor-network theory. In recent years, there has been an increasing presence of robotics in the United States public sphere. Robotics has even found its way into the United States police force. The morality of autonomous lethal force is gray at best. Furthermore, police, politicians and civilians often do not want robotics in the public sphere to begin with.
Actor-Network Theory
Even though robots are inanimate objects, they have the capabilities to create and shift social networks. A main way that robotic use can be seen via the actor-network theory is how robotics allow the groups in power to stay in power. These power dynamics become even more dangerous as the autonomous systems become lethal.
Robotic policing raises ethical questions. There is no standard for coding autonomous robots in situations of moral uncertainty (Lin et al., 2020). If enabled to act in the physical world, police robots would need to be “trained” to deal with infinite case by case situations.
Overall, autonomous systems capable of lethal force should be avoided at all cost.
In 2020, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) leased a $94,000-dollar robotic dog “Spot” from Boston Dynamics, a robotics company whose mission is “to imagine and create exceptional robots that enrich people’s lives” (“Boston Dynamics”, 2021). However, public opposition to Spot forced the NYPD to cancel their lease in 2021. Some people worry the increased surveillance could contribute to the predictive policing of marginalized communities. If not done right, robotic police presence on the streets could inherently make the public space a hostile and cold environment.
Introducing Spot into the NYPD was one of the first instances of police use of robotics in the public domain. It is easy to see why the project got shut down so quickly; a future where the public trusts robots roaming the streets is hard to imagine. People feared the power robotics gave to the police force. Whether or not the robots put to use in New York were ever used for malicious purposes, allowing robotics in public places sets a dangerous precedent.
Many police and security robots are used for non- lethal operations such as “scanning for pedophiles …. reciting warnings and more” (Lin et al., 2014). Even if police do not want lethal force, robotic surveillance should be dissuaded, due to the unsettling tensions it could create between the police and people.
While the use of robotics may have good intentions, their capabilities to create an intrusive and dangerous police force are too much of a risk. Robots as inanimate objects, as explained through the actor-network theory, play a key role in the policing system. The indeterminate and unpredictable actions of autonomous systems mean they should not be allowed to use lethal force. In the future, policy makers must make sure that autonomous systems are properly regulated. This means that engineers that create autonomous systems should never be allowed to design autonomous systems that cause harm. The use of robotics for surveillance also should be banned.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
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