Critics say the machine illustrated the unnecessary militarization of the police
Photo illustration by William Joel | Video by Daniel Valls
The New York Police Department has canceled its trial of a robot dog made by US firm Boston Dynamics after receiving fierce criticism regarding the “dystopian” technology.
“The contract has been terminated and the dog will be returned,” a spokesperson for the NYPD told the New York Post. John Miller, the department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told The New York Times that the machine was “a casualty of politics, bad information and cheap sound bytes.” Said Miller: “People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil.”
The NYPD began leasing the machine nicknamed Digidog last year. “This dog is going to save lives, protect people, and protect officers and that’s our goal,” said the NYPD’s Frank Digiacomo in an interview with ABC7. The robot was deployed roughly half a dozen times during its tenure, mostly acting as a mobile camera in potentially hostile environments.
THE ROBOT DOG WAS DEPLOYED ROUGHLY HALF A DOZEN TIMES, MOSTLY AS MOBILE SURVEILLANCE
“The NYPD has been using robots since the 1970s to save lives in hostage situations & hazmat incidents,” said the department in February. “This model of robot is being tested to evaluate its capabilities against other models in use by our emergency service unit and bomb squad.”
Many, though, saw the robot as a symbol of both wasteful police spending and increasingly aggressive tactics being deployed by law enforcement. “Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools,” tweeted NYC Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February.
In response to outcry over the machine, New York City Council Member Ben Kallos proposed a law that would ban the police from owning or operating weaponized robots. “I don’t think anyone was anticipating that they’d actually be used by the NYPD right now,” Kallos told Wired earlier this year. ”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 told the Times this week that deploying Digidog on the streets of New York City highlighted the ongoing “militarization of the police.” Said Kallos: “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.”
AROUND 500 SPOT UNITS ARE IN USE, MAINLY IN INDUSTRIAL SETTINGS
Spot, as the machine is called by creators Boston Dynamics, has never been weaponized, and doing so would break the company’s terms of service. But it is being deployed in increasingly controversial situations. Although the company has currently sold or leases around 500 Spot units, with most of the robots being used in commercial and industrial settings, such machines are of increasing interest to both law enforcement and military users.
Earlier this month, it emerged that the French military has been testing Spot in combat exercises. Boston Dynamics told The Verge at the time that while it knew the robot was being leased to the army, it was unaware it was being used in these exact scenarios. Spot was not weaponized in these exercises but used by soldiers for forward surveillance.
Speaking to The New York Times, a spokesperson for Boston Dynamics said, “We support local communities reviewing the allocation of public funds, and believe Spot is a cost-effective tool comparable to historical robotic devices used by public safety to inspect hazardous environments.”