ACLU worried about cops with robot dogs

For three months this year, the bomb squad for the Massachusetts State Police had one of the terrifying Boston Dynamics “Spot” robot dogs on loan for a pilot program test. The robot, equipped with an arm, 360-degree cameras and limited artificial intelligence, was used for exploration and surveillance purposes in dangerous situations. By all accounts, the program worked out pretty well and they may decide to expand it, adding more robot dogs to the force on a permanent basis.

Of course, you can always find someone to complain about the cops doing anything innovative and this case was no exception. The ACLU felt compelled to register their “concerns” over the project. (WBUR News)

That deadly potential, and lack of transparency about the state police’s overall robotics program, worries Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. Crockford said they want to see a policy from state police about its use of robotics and a conversation about how and when robots should be used. State police didn’t say whether there’s a current policy about the use of robots, and the ACLU’s records request to the agency didn’t turn one up.

“We just really don’t know enough about how the state police are using this,” Crockford said. “And the technology that can be used in concert with a robotic system like this is almost limitless in terms of what kinds of surveillance and potentially even weaponization operations may be allowed.”

Beyond an agency policy, the ACLU is urging state and local lawmakers to enact laws or regulations at the state level to govern how increasingly advanced robots can be used. Nothing like that exists in Massachusetts now.

Hey, I have some concerns of my own about this, but they aren’t the same as the ACLU’s. The group’s spokesperson is worried that the robot dogs might be used for surveillance, facial recognition and even weaponization.

Taking those in reverse order, the police never equipped the robot with a weapon. In fact, Boston Dynamics’ user agreement specifically states that the robots should not be given weapons. To that, I say… why not? Provided the weapon isn’t tied into the dog’s AI control and can only be aimed and fired remotely, that could be a huge plus for the police. Think about it for a moment. If you’re sending the robot dog in to find out if a situation is dangerous and it actually is dangerous, why would you turn around and send in a human cop? It makes no sense. And if there are bad guys that need to be taken down, let the dog handle it if they won’t surrender.

As far as surveillance and facial recognition are concerned, liberals will continue to complain about this for as long as our technological society lasts. But surveillance is part of what the police do. Facial recognition software, while still filled with flaws, is improving. At some point, it will be useful enough to actually help solve crimes more quickly.

If you really want to be worried about the police (or anyone) having these robot dogs, perhaps you should focus on the bigger picture. Sooner or later the Artificial Intelligence may just “wake up” and become sentient. (Assuming it hasn’t already, as some suspect.) At that point, you’ve got a robot dog walking around that can open doors, break down walls, dance like a ninja and outrun any human being. On top of that, it might even have a gun.

So if I could offer any advice to the ACLU on this subject it would be this. It’s not the police you need to be worried about. It’s the robot revolution.