New York The police department announced Thursday that it would stop using the “Digidog,” a four-legged robot occasionally deployed for reconnaissance in dangerous situations. NYPD officials confirmed in a statement that he had terminated his contract and will return the dog to seller Boston Dynamics. Last December, the agency leased the Digidog, nicknamed Spot, for $ 94,000.
John Miller, Deputy Police Service Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, Told The New York Times that the contract was “a victim of politics, bad news and cheap sound bites.” Miller lamented the role of bad press in the backlash, but in many ways the NYPD’s own actions were a plan not to introduce new technology. And, for activists, how to act effectively to ban unwanted technologies.
In truth, it wasn’t just the sound bites that doomed Spot. New Yorkers didn’t want it.
In February, the NYPD used Spot to defuse a hostage-taking in the Bronx. When the device’s video went viral, its flexible legs and head-camera design scared people off. The robot is four-legged but doesn’t really look like a dog. A more immediate comparison is that of the armed robots presented in a post-apocalyptic episode of Black mirror. This comparison quickly spread on social media. The NYPD secrecy worked against this: There was no public comment process for Spot, and residents weren’t aware they expected robot dogs to respond to hostage situations.
The NYPD had exactly this opportunity, months earlier, when it had to disclose both the price and the policies in effect for all surveillance devices like defined by the city Surveillance Technology Public Oversight Act (POST). Instead, the agency included a fleeting reference to Spot in a larger section on “situational awareness cameras,” without footage.
In New York, the police department is not required seek municipal council approval, which would typically involve a public comment phase, for new purchases. And throwing a robot at people has consequences.
In New York, secrecy followed by sudden viral infamy condemned Digidog.
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) criticized the robot as a waste of funds that could have been spent on social services. Ben Kallos, member of the municipal council drives a charge for the ban on armed robots, claiming that Spot was the first step towards launching an “arms race”. In the borough of the Bronx where the hostage incident occurred, where police often respond to calls for service, many residents are wondering if they would start seeing the dog showing up frequently.
Above all, Spot was unarmed. The robot used cameras and microphone to identify areas that may be too dangerous for officers, such as hostage-taking. Most of the time, robots are used to investigate downed power lines or gas leaks. But, the tag of “robot dog” stuck as it was introduced in the context of the police, in the midst of a nationwide conversation about the police, used by a police force that purchases new equipment without approval. public.
Critics have seized this to point out the potential consequences of police use of robots without public oversight or participation. With less alarming technologies, video doorbells, for example, many wonder “what’s the worst that could happen?” In Spot’s case, they warned that this was part of a larger model of police militarization.
Boston Dynamics said the company prohibited attaching weapons to its robots. In a statement released Thursday, the company said, “We support local communities who are reviewing the allocation of public funds and believe Spot is a cost-effective tool comparable to the historic robotic devices used by public safety to inspect hazardous environments.”
Kallos, the city council member, told WIRED in March that the risk of mission drift, as well as the growing militarization of law enforcement (including the increased use of drones and robots in healthcare settings) public) meant it was time to act proactively.