New York City Councilor Ben Kallos said he "watched in horror" last month as city police responded to a hostage situation in the Bronx with Boston Dynamics' Digidog, a remote-controlled robot dog equipped with surveillance cameras. Images of the Digidog went viral on Twitter, in part because of their uncanny resemblance to global machines in the Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror.
Now Kallos is proposing what may be the nation's first law prohibiting police from owning or operating robots armed with weapons.
"I don't think anyone expected them to actually be used by the NYPD now," says Kallos. "I have no problem defusing a bomb with a robot, but it has to be the right use of a tool and the right kind of circumstances."
Kallos' bill would not ban unarmed supply robots like the Digidog, only weapon robots. However, robotics experts and ethicists say he has addressed concerns about the increasing militarization of the police force: their increasing access to sophisticated robots by private providers and a controversial military equipment pipeline. Police in Massachusetts and Hawaii are also testing the Digidog.
"Non-lethal robots could very well transform into lethal ones," says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences group at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo. Lin briefed CIA officials on autonomous weapons during the Obama administration and supports a ban on armed robots. He fears that their increased availability will be a serious problem.
"Robots can save police lives, and that's a good thing," he says. "But we also have to be careful that the police do not become more violent as a result."
In the Bronx incident last month, police used the Digidog to gather information about the house, where two men were holding two other hostages, searching for hiding spots and tight corners. Police eventually arrested the suspects, but privacy advocates raised concerns about the robot's technical capabilities and guidelines for its use.
The ACLU questioned why the Digidog was not listed in police surveillance equipment disclosure under a city law passed last year. The robot was only mentioned in passing in a section on "Situation Awareness Cameras". The ACLU described this disclosure as "extremely inadequate" and criticized the "weak data protection and training sections" with regard to Digidog.
In a statement, the NYPD said it "has been using robots to save lives in hostage situations and dangerous goods incidents since the 1970s. This robot model is being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models used by our Emergency Services Unit and Bombing Squad." "
In a statement, Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter said the company's terms of service prohibit the attachment of weapons to its robots. "All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon," said Playter. "As an industry, we believe that robots will only achieve long-term economic viability if people see robots as helpful and useful tools without worrying about whether they will cause harm."
Local reaction to the use of the Digidog has been mixed, says councilor Kevin Riley, who represents the Bronx neighborhood where the incident took place. Some residents rejected the use of the robot by the police, while others wanted a more human police presence. A third group believed the robots could help prevent police misconduct by creating distance between officers and suspects.
Riley says he continues to speak to residents who want to feel safe in the neighborhood. "It is our job as elected officials to educate the residents and ensure that they have a seat at the table," he told WIRED in discussions.
The variety of concerns reflects those in Dallas in 2016. During an altercation with a sniper, local law enforcement officials used a robot to remotely deliver an explosive and detonate and kill him. The sniper shot five police officers.
The incident raised questions about how police are acquiring robots. Dallas police had at least three bomb robots in 2016. According to Reuters, two were acquired by defense company Northrop Grumman. The third came through the federal government's 1033 program, which allows excess military equipment to be transferred to local police departments. Since 1997, over 8,000 police departments have received over $ 7 billion worth of equipment.
A 2016 study by Bard University found that over 280 law enforcement agencies in the US had received robots through the 1033 system. A Colorado official told the local press that his department purchased up to a dozen military robots in varying conditions and then used the best-working one.
President Obama placed limits on the types of equipment law enforcement agencies can obtain through the system, but President Trump later rolled them back.
The lack of a unified federal response, the increasing number of private providers equipping robots, and the increasing militarization of the police have made criminal justice and robotics experts suspicious. You don't want to wait for tragedy to think about banning gun robots.
"The goal for any type of technology should be harm reduction and de-escalation," says Peter Asaro, robotics scientist and professor in the New School's School of Media Studies.
"It is almost always the police officer who argues that they are using deadly force to defend themselves," he says. "But a robot has no right to self-defense. So why should it be justified to use lethal force?"
Asaro notes that SWAT teams were created to deal with bank robberies and armed civil unrest. Today they are mostly used to issue arrest warrants for narcotics up to 60,000 times a year across the country. The rare hostage situation resolved by robotic interventions could warrant increased use.
Shortly after the Dallas incident, Delaware police acquired the same type of bombing robot and trained officers in a similar scenario. In 2018, Maine police used a robot bomb to detonate an explosive and enter the home of a man who was firing at the police from his roof.
"This is happening now," says Melissa Hamilton, a law and criminal justice scholar at the University of Surrey in the UK and a former police officer. Hamilton says she heard from U.S. law enforcement agencies who carried out exercises similar to 2016 in Dallas and used robots to detonate explosives – not just to neutralize suspects, but to enter buildings or end spacers.
"I worry that a democracy will turn the internal police into a militarized zone," she says.
This increasing militarization is part of why Kallos, the New York City Councilor, "wants to avoid investing in an escalating arms race when those dollars could better be spent elsewhere".
Lin, the Cal Poly professor, fears that many police officers do not live in the communities they patrol and that remote police could worsen the gap between us and them. The digidog wouldn't be banned under Kallos' law, but Lin says military drones offer a cautionary story. They too began strictly as reconnaissance devices before being armed.
"It's hard to see why this wouldn't happen with police drones given the trend towards greater militarization," says Lin.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.