Things You Should Know But Don’t: The State of Police Robots

Posted November 27, 2023

The use of robotics in law enforcement isn’t new, but is a topic getting more and more attention as AI becomes more of a concern. While it’s unlikely police robots used in local precincts will become fully autonomous any time soon, it is important to understand where this technology might be headed—and to understand the current uses.  And, like most things, the use of police robots is a subject with much nuance and controversy. People rightfully have concerns about it, but are there circumstances where it is efficient or even life-saving to employ robotics?

Perhaps the most common use of robots in law enforcement is investigating, disarming, and disposing bombs. In 1997, the National Institute of Justice began researching and funding ways to build better tools, including bomb-disposal robots, for combating terrorism. There were earlier devices in the 1970s developed to disarm bombs from a safe distance. In fact, some of the earliest bomb disposal robots were controlled by a series of ropes! Over time the technology used to communicate with these robots has improved significantly. It’s unclear just how many lives have been saved by these robots, but it stands to reason that for every bomb disposal device that is lost, a human life was saved.

In addition to explosives, there are many circumstances where robots can be used in place of humans to complete tasks in dangerous situations. For instance, although this technology is still very new, some robots are now sniffing out drugs like fentanyl by using remotely operated sensors. Another example involves hostages. The NYPD has used Boston Dynamics robots—famously designed to look similar to dogs—to help deliver supplies to the hostages and to scope out situations ahead of police and first responders. Notably there are at least two instances, one in Queens and another in the Bronx, both involving active shooters who had taken hostages. However, the latter incident sparked a tremendous amount of backlash and controversy regarding the NYPD’s use of these “Digidogs.”

There are reasons to be concerned about the use of robots in policing, specifically the robot “dogs” created by Boston Dynamics. The company makes an effort to soften its design, even going so far as to name the model Spot and to market it as a “teammate” on their website. They make it clear that the intended use is to assist in hazardous situations, not actual enforcement of the law, but there is concern that it could escalate to that. In 2019 police in Massachusetts began implementing the use of Spot over a three-month period but was unspecific on how they used the robot. Kade Crockford, the Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said “All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. We urgently need more transparency from government agencies, who should be upfront with the public about their plans to test and deploy new technologies.”

Previously, I wrote about how companies like Boston Dynamics have signed an agreement to ensure their robots will not be weaponized, a statement that seems especially significant with the introduction of AI in more recent years. While the current state of robotics in policing seems to be fairly situational, their use in the military is expanding. If police were to begin using robots and AI in a similar fashion, there certainly is cause for concern.  And if you’re curious, check out campaigns like Stop Killer Robots that want to limit the use of autonomous robots and AI internationally.

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