It’s Robocop, It’s R2D2, It’s…Your New Night Watchman

By Joelle Renstrom | Published

03markoff-articleLargeSouth Korea began using robot prison guards a while ago, and more and more police forces are incorporating robotic technology into their investigations and other particularly dangerous work, such as inspecting suspicious packages. The heinous shootings at Sandy Hook elementary a year ago prompted a team of engineers, law enforcement officers, and entrepreneurs to establish Knightscope, a California company specializing in building autonomous crime prevention robots. The model they’re about to unveil, the K5, is a little bit like what you’d get if Batman crawled inside R2D2 and then got training from RoboCop.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, the NRA suggested putting an armed guard inside every school in America. Given the infeasibility and the sheer danger of such a proposition, the Knightscope founders were inspired to come up with a more workable solution that doesn’t involve placing more guns in schools.

The five-foot-tall, 300-pound K5 prototype will make its debut at a news conference on Thursday, and while there’s still work to be done on the robot, most of its features have been designed, including a GPS locator, 3D mapping, 360 video, night vision and thermal imaging capabilities, character recognition, behavioral analysis, recording capabilities, location and proximity sensors, and biological, chemical, and radiation detection. K5 can alert building managers, the police, or call 911. It can monitor parking lots and garages, buildings, sidewalks, parks, roads — you name it. Eventually, it will have facial recognition capabilities, and perhaps more autonomy than the ability to follow a pre-programmed route. Silicon Valley is the perfect place to unveil K5, given the number of massive technology companies that need monitoring.

As with most robots poised to take over for human workers, Knightscope’s founders say that this isn’t meant to replace humans, but rather to free them up to do more strategic work, such as coordination and analysis. Still, economists have already calculated that K5 is cheaper than human labor — they figure K5 will operate at about $6.25 an hour, which is below minimum wage, which raises more questions and concerns about the impact of such technology on lower and middle-class workers.

Some people are also concerned about what K5 means for surveillance, a concern also raised about Google’s Street View and about the Amazon Prime Air drones. Do we really want a robot watchman — in other words, a high-tech spybot — scrutinizing everything from passersby to licensing plates? If K5 is going to be able to predict crimes before they’re committed, it has to be awfully good at looking, listening, and processing information. It seems such systems are becoming the new normal, even in public spaces. At least K5 won’t be armed — for now.