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3D rendering of a futuristic robot dog.
3D rendering of a futuristic robot dog.

Questions Dog the Future of Police Robots

Robots will have all the human judgment flaws but none of the capacity to change

Here’s a snippet from a recent New York Times article on the apparent first use of police robots in the United States in 2016, to kill Micah Xavier Johnson. Johnson had been discharged from the U.S. Army under unclear circumstances and in July of that year he shot five officers dead.

Like almost all police robots in use today, the Dallas device was a straightforward remote-control platform. But more sophisticated robots are being developed in labs around the world, and they will use artificial intelligence to do much more. A robot with algorithms for, say, facial recognition, or predicting people’s actions, or deciding on its own to fire “nonlethal” projectiles is a robot that many researchers find problematic. The reason: Many of today’s algorithms are biased against people of color and others who are unlike the white, male, affluent and able-bodied designers of most computer and robot systems.

While Mr. Johnson’s death resulted from a human decision, in the future such a decision might be made by a robot — one created by humans, with their flaws in judgment baked in.

David Berreby, “Can We Make Our Robots Less Biased Than We Are?” at New York Times (November 22, 2020)

Similar questions have been raised about robotic police dogs.

In the videos, the nimble doglike robot was seen climbing up and down stairs, dancing to Bruno Mars, hauling a large truck and even opening a door with ease, offering a futuristic glimpse of robotic potential that many online observers found shocking.

Peter Holley , “Boston Dynamics’ ‘terrifying’ robotic dogs have been put to work by at least one police agency” at Washington Post

Here’s an issue to consider: In some places in the world, everything is policed except crime. Issues around robotics in policing must take that into account.

Further reading:

How toxic bias infiltrates computer code. Jonathan Bartlett: A look at the dark underbelly of modern algorithms. A new film makes the point that algorithms cannot achieve justice, they can only automate bias.


Robot police dogs spark civil rights questions Boston Dynamics says that its lease agreements require that the robots not be used to “physically harm or intimidate people.”

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Questions Dog the Future of Police Robots