Robotics

New York’s mayor wants you to know how much he loves police robots

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Knightscope robot
Image Credits: Knightscope

Former cop and self-declared “geek” Eric Adams held a press conference in Times Square today to let the city know how much he loves police robots. New York City’s mayor presided over a press conference alongside police officials to discuss a pair of pilots designed to increase the city’s surveillance.

“I’ve stated this from day one, even when I was on the campaign trail: I’m a computer geek. I believe that technology is here,” the mayor said at the top of his remarks. “We can’t be afraid of it, and as [NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell] stated, transparency is the key.”

At the top of the list is Digidog — a pet name the police gave to a Boston Dynamics Spot robot. The system was greeted with a fierce public backlash when it was unveiled back in 2021, following its deployment at public housing in Manhattan. “People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller said at the time.

The pilot was ultimately pulled after a couple of months, over fears of profiling and increased surveillance. “It was something that was introduced previously, under a previous administration and a few loud people were opposed to it, and we took a step back,” Adams noted at today’s event. “That is not how I operate. I operate on looking at what’s best for the city.”

Spot will be joined by K5, Knightscope’s egg-shaped robot, which you’ve probably seen at shopping malls. The well-funded robotics firm has aggressively been targeting law enforcement with its products, and a nod from New York City is obviously a big vote of confidence (though, again, this is currently a pilot). Also included in the announcement is StarChase’s GPS system, which can be used to track vehicles remotely.

The Spot robots run $75,000 a piece, while K5 is generally quoted at between $60,000-70,000 a year to lease. The news comes roughly a week after Adams announced massive pay raises for officers. The raises of 2.25-4% will be retroactively applied back to August 1, 2017. A week prior, the Mayor announced sweeping cuts to the New York Public Library system amounting to $36.2 million.

These moves come amid media criticism over New York City’s crime rate. According to a recent study, NYC currently ranks as the fifth-safest city in the U.S. with a population over 300,000.

Late last year, the San Francisco Police Department drew national scrutiny for a clause allowing their police robots to use “justified” deadly force. The section reads, “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.” That move was reversed the following week.

As with the robots being rolled out by the NYPD, none of the SFPD’s robots were designed to kill. However, in 2016, Dallas became the first U.S. police department to kill a suspect with a robot, by planting an explosive to a bomb detecting system.

A month prior to the initial San Francisco news, Boston Dynamics joined four other leading firms in signing a pledge to not allow for the weaponization of their general-purpose robots. The open letter noted:

We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues. Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society.

New York’s Mayor is, however, certainly bullish on their use as surveillance systems. Adams cited pushback to fingerprinting, post-9/11 policing measures and the CompStat to vocal concerns around the implementation of these new robotic policing systems. He explained, “This is the beginning of a series of rollouts we were going to do to show how public safety has transformed itself,” noting that Spot and K5 are “just the beginning.”

Addressing a question from the audience, Adams added, “Digidog is now out of the pound.”

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