Oh, well. Robocop FAIL raises questions

This was a bit of an obscure story we covered back in June but it now has a rather disturbing update. It dealt with a somewhat autonomous robot cop that was patrolling a beat in the Hunting Park area near Los Angeles. Unlike the Alex Murphy cyborg from the original movie, this robocop has no weapons and doesn’t even look humanoid. At least to me, it looks like a tall, very expensive Roomba.

Still, what’s the harm, right? It rolls around the park and takes pictures and video for the police, along with shouting out cheerful greetings to people who come near it. And it can record and report crimes, summoning the human police in times of need. What’s not to like?

Well, as it turns out, the robot was engaged by a civilian during the commission of a crime and finally had the chance to earn its pay. And it failed. Spectacularly. (NBC News)

When a fight broke out recently in the parking lot of Salt Lake Park, a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Cogo Guebara did what seemed the most practical thing at the time: she ran over to the park’s police robot to push its emergency alert button.

“I was pushing the button but it said, ‘step out of the way,’” Guebara said. “It just kept ringing and ringing, and I kept pushing and pushing.”

She thought maybe the robot, which stands about 5 feet tall and has “POLICE” emblazoned on its egg-shaped body, wanted a visual of her face, so she crouched down for the camera. It still didn’t work.

So here’s this woman witnessing a violent confrontation and she’s frantically pushing the helpful looking button on the robot that says “Emergency Alert.” But nothing happens. Her friend finally dials 911, but by the time the cops arrive (fifteen minutes later) there’s a woman being wheeled out to an ambulance and the assailants are long gone.

The (human) police had an explanation. As it turns out, the Emergency Alert button was never connected to the 911 dispatch office. The messages were being sent instead to the manufacturer of the robot, where they either didn’t receive them or had no idea what to do with them. And after yelling at the women to get out of the way, the robot reportedly continued gliding smoothly along past the ongoing fight, continuing on its route through the park playing some sort of science fiction melody as it went.

So… how much did you pay for this robocop again? It must have been fairly embarrassing for the robot police officer because it hasn’t tweeted anything about the incident since it happened. (Yes, the robocop has a Twitter account because of course it would.) Then again, it hasn’t tweeted anything since July 12. Maybe it’s just shy on social media.

We can look at this as just another funny technological epic fail story, but it might be hinting at something more serious. We’re apparently faced with a choice, with one option being comparatively “dumb” robots that look like they’re doing something useful but wind up being kind of useless. Or we can opt for seriously muscular Artificial Intelligence robots that can kick serious butt like the ones from Boston Dynamics. But then we have to wonder what happens when that technology goes off the rails.

Maybe it’s just me, but particularly when it comes to police work, maybe we should just stick with human beings. Especially if we’re going to give them guns.

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