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No bark and no bite, for now. Will robotic dogs replace the police K-9?

The Honolulu Police Department used $150,000 in coronavirus relief money to purchase a robotic dog that patrols a temporary homeless shelter

SHARE No bark and no bite, for now. Will robotic dogs replace the police K-9?
Spot, a robotic Honolulu police dog, stands outside department headquarters.

Spot, a robotic Honolulu police dog, stands outside department headquarters during a demonstration to reporters on Friday, May 14, 2021.

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Associated Press

Will robotic police dogs replace the K-9s used today by police officers — or even an actual patrolman? But the larger question, and perhaps more a concerning inquiry for humanity, is, should they?

A police department is Hawaii is about to find out.

The Honolulu Police Department is using a robot dog named Spot to patrol a government-run tent city, The Associated Press reported. The robotic K-9, a product of Boston Dynamics, cost the department around $150,000 in federal coronavirus relief money, according to the AP.

Spot can scan an individual’s eye to see if they have a fever (a sign that the person could be sick) and has been used to conduct remote interviews inside the temporary homelessness shelter, reported the AP.

  • “We have not had a single person out there that said, ‘That’s scary, that’s worrisome,’” said Honolulu police officer Lt. Joseph O’Neal of the department’s community outreach unit, the AP reported. “We don’t just walk around and arbitrarily scan people.”
  • The police lieutenant also said that Spot has protected law enforcement officers and tent city staff and residents by conducting the temperature checks.
  • Boston Dynamics advertises on its website that Spot can “automate sensing and inspection, capture limitless data, and explore without boundaries.”

Are robots the future of policing?

It’s the limitless potential of what these robotic K-9s could do that has critics of police robots worried, and some have compared the metal dogs to those shown in the dystopian, fiction television “Black Mirror,” reported Wired.

  • “One of the things that makes these robots so unnerving is that everybody implicitly understands that the possibility of weaponizing them will continue to hang out there like a tempting forbidden fruit for law enforcement,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a March statement.
  • “There is also the fear that they could evolve from a remote-controlled tool to an autonomous decision-maker that makes actual law enforcement decisions of some kind. That would bring up the many issues around bias and inaccuracy in AI decision-making,” added the ACLU, which has spoken out against the use of the robotic police dogs in Massachusetts, New York and Hawaii.

Although Spot is only scanning people’s eyes to see if they might have a fever, the concern of biometric data collection isn’t unheard of. Since early in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has used biometric data — to include iris and facial scanning — to create databases of individuals that soldiers and Marines interacted with on the battlefield, to include people it designates as targets.

In Hawaii, critics were also frustrated that Honolulu Police Department had spent a large amount of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money on the robot, as opposed to people who have been affected by the coronavirus, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

  • “The bulk of the money should’ve gone to individuals and families who were suffering,” Honolulu Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi said, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat.
  • Police officials pushed back on criticism that Spot was a glorified thermometer and that it had plans to use Spot “in other HPD operations,” the Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

‘Creepy’ robotic K-9 were fired in New York

Earlier this year, the New York City Police Department terminated a $94,000 contract with Boston Dynamics, the creator of NYPD robotic “DigiDog,” The New York Times reported in April.

  • John Miller, NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, blamed the community’s reaction to the robot dog for the department sending the program to the pound, the Times reported.
  • “People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil,” Miller said in April, according to the Times.

But community leaders criticized the program as being dystopian and a militarization of the law enforcement agency meant to protect New Yorkers.

  • “At a time where we should be having more beat cops on the street, building relationships with residents, they’re actually headed in another direction in trying to replace them with robots,” said New York City Councilman Ben Kallos, reported The New York Times.
  • The councilman is proposing a bill that prevent NYPD from “owning or operating robots armed with weapons,” Wired reported.
  • A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said “glad the Digidog was put down,” ABC7 reported. “It’s creepy, alienating, and sends the wrong message to New Yorkers.”