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Robot Police Dogs Are Here, Should We Beware?

A real dog staring at a robotic dog
By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on

Faced with a possible hostage situation last week, police officers in New York City decided the time was right for Digidog to head in and assess the situation.

Who is Digidog? Oh, only a half-terrifying, half-dopey-looking, faceless, robotic "dog" that can navigate tight, dangerous spaces.

Has Black Mirror successfully predicted (again, annoyingly) what technology hath wrought? It's definitely TV-MA, so we're not going to post it here, but look up the episode "Metalhead." Instead, we'll show you this video from Singapore:

Not exactly ... yet. Still, there are civil rights implications of deploying this technology for surveillance. It's also hard not to blame people for thinking about what other activities law enforcement could use these "dogs" for.

Why Are the Robot Dogs Here?

In the U.S., the Honolulu Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police are also utilizing the Boston Dynamics robot nicknamed "Spot."

According to the NYPD, Digidog offers advantages over living, breathing human and canine officers in certain situations.

  • Surveillance: Like in the case of last week's hostage situation, Digidog was able to enter a dark apartment building and use surveillance equipment to get the lay of the land and let officers know if it's safe to enter the premises.
  • Safety: Letting officers know what they are walking into will prevent both officer ambushes and unnecessary shootouts that endanger everyone, the NYPD says.

To police, this is simply the next evolution in bomb-defusing robots and other surveillance equipment.

"The NYPD has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage situations & hazmat incidents," the department argued on Twitter.

Michael Perry, a vice president at Boston Dynamics, said there isn't much to fear about the "dogs," noting that unlike in Black Mirror, the real-world model is "noisy and has flashing lights," meaning that if it's in the area, you'll know it.

In 2016, Dallas police used a robot armed with a bomb to blow up a man accused of killing five police officers. At the time, that also sparked a debate about whether police blurred the lines between law enforcement and warfare. Could Digidog renew that debate?

For now, there is nothing stopping the use of the new technology. The American Civil Liberties Union warns that it's easy to worry about the technology morphing into a Terminator-like scenario with armed autonomous dogs roaming the streets making decisions for themselves about what constitutes a threat.

But the bigger concern on Earth in 2021, the organization notes, is that we are rolling out new technologies faster than laws and regulations can keep up.

"The real questions are how frequently such scenarios come up, how dangerous are they, how effective is the solution ... and are there alternative, less invasive solutions that would work just as well?" writes ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley.

The ACLU champions states and cities passing "Community Control Over Police Surveillance" laws, which basically require more transparency from law enforcement on surveillance tactics. The New York City Council has done this, so hopefully, we hear more information about Digidog in the future.

In the meantime, if Digidog is giving you trouble, it has one obvious design flaw that you can exploit.

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