Dubai, where kissing in public is illegal, is introducing the newest member of its police force: a 5-foot-five-inch, 222-lb android that will start patrolling the streets on May 24, according to Gulf News.
This first model is more of a community robot, allowing residents to report crime, pay fines, and ask questions. However, it “can use its facial recognition software to help police officers identify and catch offenders and can broadcast live video feeds,” according to Arabian Business, which reported from the Gulf Information Security Expo and Conference (GISEC) where the robot is being demonstrated this week before being deployed in “high-density communities.”
“By 2030, we are keen to make robots around 25 percent of the total police force,” the police tech chief told reporters at GISEC.
Let me just admit that I had to stop and breathe into a paper bag after reading this. Using robots as police is not necessarily a bad thing. Robots could be calmer in tense situations, leading to fewer fatal shootings by law enforcement, for example, and could lead to fewer police deaths in dangerous situations. But there’s a reason why science fiction depicts robot cops in dystopian futures. Algorithms have been shown to carry biases, as with sentencing recommendation algorithms in the US that predicted higher reoffending rates for black people. Robots simply carry out orders, and they can only do what they’re programmed to do; they cannot improvise based on the specifics of a situation, or draw on human empathy to decide when to let something slide.
Furthermore, causes of crime are complicated, and an escalation of force by one side can lead to an equal escalation by the other. Cops told The Economist that even just having guns “automatically escalates violent situations.”
Is this the first robot to be used by police? Not really, given that robots are any sort of computer that moves, or even more broadly, any computer or machine. Police in the U.S. use robots in training, and bomb-defusing robots developed for the military have filtered down to police departments. In Dallas, police attached a bomb to one such robot and detonated it to kill a sniper who was holed up in a parking garage after killing five police officers. North Korea has border patrol bots, South Korea has robot prison guards, and Israel has a robot that looks like a remote-controlled car but packs a Glock and pepper spray (these examples rounded up by Wired; more here). Then there was the 5-foot-tall, 300-lb robotic mall cop that ran over a child in California. The Telebot, a menacing 6-foot thing developed by Florida International University, looks like Dubai’s robot but is still in development and would be operated remotely by a human police officer. Therefore the Dubai police bot appears to be the most advanced version of an official law enforcement machine that actually interacts with people, if not the first.
The Dubai police force, which also employs multiple supercars for patrolling tourist areas, enforces the conditions that keep migrant workers in deplorable labor conditions. It has also, like many police forces, been the subject of reports of extreme brutality; in the case of three British tourists who were tortured by cops and then jailed for a year, the victims were also innocent.
Dubai’s robot cops don’t make arrests yet, but they will. Already they can record the faces of workers who strike, which is illegal. People are tempted to cry dystopia at every piece of robot news, but in this case, the addition of walking computers with very limited intelligence to an already draconian and militarized police force justifies it. Still, I’ll try to wait to panic until they give the robots guns.