New York lawmaker wants to ban police use of armed robots

A black robot that is in the abstract shape of a dog.

New York City councilmember Ben Kallos says he “watched in horror” final month when city police responded to a hostage predicament in the Bronx working with Boston Dynamics‘ Digidog, a remotely operated robotic dog equipped with surveillance cameras. Pictures of the Digidog went viral on Twitter, in element due to their uncanny resemblance with planet-ending machines in the Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror.

Now Kallos is proposing what might be the nation’s very first law banning police from owning or operating robots armed with weapons.

“I do not feel anybody was anticipating that they’d really be utilised by the NYPD correct now,” Kallos says. “I have no challenge with working with a robot to defuse a bomb, but it has to be the correct use of a tool and the correct sort of circumstance.”

Kallos’ bill would not ban unarmed utility robots like the Digidog, only weaponized robots. But robotics specialists and ethicists say he has tapped into issues about the rising militarization of police: their rising access to sophisticated robots by way of private vendors and a controversial military gear pipeline. Police in Massachusetts and Hawaii are testing the Digidog as effectively.

“Nonlethal robots could extremely effectively morph into lethal ones,” says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Lin briefed CIA personnel on autonomous weapons through the Obama administration and supports a ban on armed robots. He worries their elevated availability poses a really serious concern.

“Robots can save police lives, and that is a great factor,” he says. “But we also will need to be cautious it does not make a police force much more violent.”

In the Bronx incident final month, police utilised the Digidog to collect intel on the property exactly where two males had been holding two other people hostage, scoping out hiding areas and tight corners. Police eventually apprehended the suspects, but privacy advocates raised issues about the technical capabilities of the robot and policies governing its use.

The ACLU questioned why the Digidog was not listed on the police department’s disclosure of surveillance devices beneath a city law passed final year. The robot was only talked about in passing in a section on “situational awareness cameras.” The ACLU named that disclosure “highly inadequate,” criticizing the “weak information protection and coaching sections” concerning Digidog.

In a statement, the NYPD mentioned it “has been working with robots given that the 1970s to save lives in hostage circumstances and hazmat incidents. This model of robot is getting tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models in use by our Emergency Service Unit and Bomb Squad.”

In a statement, Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter mentioned the company’s terms of service prohibit attaching weapons to its robots. “All of our purchasers, without having exception, have to agree that Spot will not be utilised as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon,” Playter mentioned. “As an market, we feel robots will attain lengthy-term industrial viability only if persons see robots as useful, helpful tools without having worrying if they are going to bring about harm.”

Local response to the use of the Digidog was mixed, says councilmember Kevin Riley, who represents the Bronx neighborhood exactly where the incident occurred. Some residents opposed police use of the robot and other people wanted much more human police presence. A third group believed the robots may possibly support avert police misconduct by generating distance amongst officers and suspects.

Riley says he’s continuing to speak with residents, who want to really feel secure in the neighborhood. “It’s our job as elected officials to educate residents and make positive they have a seat at the table” in discussions, he told WIRED.

The diversity of issues mirror these in Dallas in 2016. During a standoff with a sniper, regional law enforcement used a robot to remotely provide and detonate an explosive device, killing him. The sniper had shot and killed 5 police officers.

The incident raised concerns about how police obtain robots. Dallas police had at least 3 bomb robots in 2016. Two were acquired from the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, according to Reuters. The third came through the federal government’s 1033 system, which permits the transfer of surplus military gear to regional police departments. Since 1997, more than eight,000 police departments have received more than $7 billion in gear.

A 2016 study from Bard University located that more than 280 police agencies in the US had received robots by way of the 1033 method. One Colorado officer told local press his division acquired as several as a dozen military robots of varying situation, then makes use of the 1 that functions greatest.

President Obama placed limits on the kinds of gear that police departments can get by way of the method, but President Trump later reversed them.

The lack of a unified federal response, the rising quantity of private vendors furnishing robots, and rising militarization of the police has created criminal justice and robotics specialists wary. They do not want to wait for a tragedy to think about a ban on weaponized robots.

“The objective for any sort of technologies really should be harm reduction and de-escalation,” says Peter Asaro, a roboticist and professor at the School of Media Studies at the New School.

“It’s virtually constantly the police officer arguing that they are defending themselves by working with lethal force,” he says. “But a robot has no correct to self-defense. So why would it be justified in working with lethal force?”

Asaro notes that SWAT teams had been designed to manage bank robberies and armed riots. Now, they are overwhelmingly used to serve narcotics warrants, as several as 60,000 occasions a year nationwide. The uncommon hostage predicament solved by robot intervention, he worries, could justify rising their use.

Shortly soon after the Dallas incident, police in Delaware acquired the same sort of bomb robot and educated officers in a comparable situation. In 2018, police in Maine used a bomb robot to detonate an explosive and enter the household of a man firing at police from his roof.

“This is taking place now,” says Melissa Hamilton, a scholar in Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Surrey in the UK and a former police officer. Hamilton says she’s heard of US police departments operating drills comparable to the 2016 incident in Dallas, working with robots to detonate explosives—not just to neutralize suspects, but to enter buildings or finish standoffs.

“I’m concerned that a democracy is turning domestic police into a militarized zone,” she says.

This rising militarization is element of why Kallos, the New York councilmember, wants to “stay away from investing in an ever escalating arms race when these dollars could be greater spent” elsewhere.

Lin, the Cal Poly professor, worries that several police officers do not reside in the communities they patrol, and remote policing could worsen an “us-versus-them” divide. The Digidog would not be banned beneath Kallos’ bill, but Lin says military drones offer you a cautionary tale. They as well started strictly as reconnaissance devices just before getting weaponized.

“It’s tough to see a purpose why this would not take place with police drones, offered the trend toward higher militarization,” Lin says.

This story initially appeared on

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