New York City councilmember Ben Kallos says he “watched in horror” last month when city police responded to a hostage situation in the Bronx using Boston Dynamics’ Digidog, a remotely operated robotic dog equipped with surveillance cameras. Pictures of the Digidog went viral on Twitter, in part due to their uncanny resemblance with world-ending machines in the Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror.
Now Kallos is proposing what may be the nation’s first law banning police from owning or operating robots armed with weapons.
“I don't think anyone was anticipating that they'd actually be used by the NYPD right now,” Kallos says. ”I have no problem with using a robot to defuse a bomb, but it has to be the right use of a tool and the right type of circumstance.”
Kallos’ bill would not ban unarmed utility robots like the Digidog, only weaponized robots. But robotics experts and ethicists say he has tapped into concerns about the increasing militarization of police: their increasing access to sophisticated robots through private vendors and a controversial military equipment pipeline. Police in Massachusetts and Hawaii are testing the Digidog as well.
“Nonlethal robots could very well morph into lethal ones,” says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Lin briefed CIA employees on autonomous weapons during the Obama administration and supports a ban on armed robots. He worries their increased availability poses a serious concern.
“Robots can save police lives, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “But we also need to be careful it doesn’t make a police force more violent.”
In the Bronx incident last month, police used the Digidog to gather intel on the house where two men were holding two others hostage, scoping out hiding places and tight corners. Police ultimately apprehended the suspects, but privacy advocates raised concerns about the technical capabilities of the robot and policies governing its use.
The ACLU questioned why the Digidog was not listed on the police department’s disclosure of surveillance devices under a city law passed last year. The robot was only mentioned in passing in a section on “situational awareness cameras.” The ACLU called that disclosure “highly inadequate,” criticizing the “weak data protection and training sections” regarding Digidog.
In a statement, the NYPD said it “has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage situations and hazmat incidents. This model of robot is being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models in use by our Emergency Service Unit and Bomb Squad.”
In a statement, Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter said the company's terms of service prohibit attaching weapons to its robots. “All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon,” Playter said. "As an industry, we think robots will achieve long-term commercial viability only if people see robots as helpful, beneficial tools without worrying if they’re going to cause harm.”
Local response to the use of the Digidog was mixed, says councilmember Kevin Riley, who represents the Bronx neighborhood where the incident ocurred. Some residents opposed police use of the robot and others wanted more human police presence. A third group thought the robots might help prevent police misconduct by creating distance between officers and suspects.
Riley says he’s continuing to speak with residents, who want to feel safe in the neighborhood. “It’s our job as elected officials to educate residents and make sure they have a seat at the table” in discussions, he told WIRED.
The diversity of concerns mirror those in Dallas in 2016. During a standoff with a sniper, local law enforcement used a robot to remotely deliver and detonate an explosive device, killing him. The sniper had shot and killed five police officers.
The incident raised questions about how police acquire robots. Dallas police had at least three bomb robots in 2016. Two were acquired from the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, according to Reuters. The third came through the federal government’s 1033 program, which permits the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments. Since 1997, over 8,000 police departments have received over $7 billion in equipment.
A 2016 study from Bard University found that over 280 police agencies in the US had received robots through the 1033 system. One Colorado officer told local press his department acquired as many as a dozen military robots of varying condition, then uses the one that functions best.
President Obama placed limits on the types of equipment that police departments can obtain through the system, but President Trump later reversed them.
The lack of a unified federal response, the increasing number of private vendors furnishing robots, and increasing militarization of the police has made criminal justice and robotics experts wary. They don’t want to wait for a tragedy to consider a ban on weaponized robots.
“The goal for any kind of technology should be harm reduction and de-escalation,” says Peter Asaro, a roboticist and professor at the School of Media Studies at the New School.
“It's almost always the police officer arguing that they're defending themselves by using lethal force,” he says. “But a robot has no right to self-defense. So why would it be justified in using lethal force?”
Asaro notes that SWAT teams were created to handle bank robberies and armed riots. Now, they’re overwhelmingly used to serve narcotics warrants, as many as 60,000 times a year nationwide. The rare hostage situation solved by robot intervention, he worries, could justify increasing their use.
Shortly after the Dallas incident, police in Delaware acquired the same type of bomb robot and trained officers in a similar scenario. In 2018, police in Maine used a bomb robot to detonate an explosive and enter the home of a man firing at police from his roof.
“This is happening now,” says Melissa Hamilton, a scholar in Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Surrey in the UK and a former police officer. Hamilton says she’s heard of US police departments running drills similar to the 2016 incident in Dallas, using robots to detonate explosives—not just to neutralize suspects, but to enter buildings or end standoffs.
“I’m concerned that a democracy is turning domestic police into a militarized zone,” she says.
This increasing militarization is part of why Kallos, the New York councilmember, wants to “avoid investing in an ever escalating arms race when these dollars could be better spent” elsewhere.
Lin, the Cal Poly professor, worries that many police officers do not live in the communities they patrol, and remote policing could worsen an “us-versus-them” divide. The Digidog would not be banned under Kallos' bill, but Lin says military drones offer a cautionary tale. They too began strictly as reconnaissance devices before being weaponized.
“It’s hard to see a reason why this wouldn’t happen with police drones, given the trend toward greater militarization,” Lin says.
Updated, 3-18-21, 12:05pm ET: This article has been updated to include a statement from Boston Dynamics.