The news out of San Francisco recently surprised many as city officials considered allowing armed robots controlled by law enforcement officers. The city quickly dropped these plans after a public outcry.
The proposal would have allowed San Francisco police officers to use robots that can use deadly force against suspects. The SFPD has about a dozen bots that are usually used to scan areas that human officers can’t reach and defuse potential bombs, according to NPR.
The proposal surprised many in the robotics and police community, said Illah Nurbakhsh, a professor of computational ethics and technologies at Carnegie Mellon University.
Many did not expect the proposal to be put forward without warning, Nurbakhsh said, and the resulting reaction was strong. Still, Nurbakh said, the future of police robots with lethal force capabilities probably doesn’t end in San Francisco.
“We don’t know how many robots with killer capabilities are being used with the military, and with police forces, we probably don’t know what’s going on either,” he said.
The news out of San Francisco shows how easy it is to turn these proposals into reality, said David Harris, a national police expert and law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He noted that California has a state law that requires all municipalities to list and identify the authorized uses of all military equipment in their police departments. It is likely that the United States will see more of these lethal force bots in other cities, he said.
“Imagine it being done in a state where that wasn’t the law,” Harris said.
Norbakhsh and Harris said any endeavor to use lethal force robots in municipal police departments should be met with caution, regulations, and a broad focus on ethics by local governments and private robot companies.
There is little way to tell if this is being done.
Morrisville Police Chief Tom Seefield said there has been no discussion among member departments of the Westmoreland County SWAT team or intent to use robots as a resource when faced with potentially lethal force situations.
“Although bots are very useful for other reasons during a tactical deployment, our job is to be very responsible, reasonable and legal in our SWAT team deployments and tactics,” he said.
Christopher Fabeck, chief of the recently organized South Armstrong Regional Police Department, said he’s open to the idea of adding technology like robots to everyday police work.
“It could be a good resource, another tool on our belts,” he said.
Since the cost of something like an armed robot is likely to be out of reach for any one department alone, many communities can split the cost in the same way that the municipalities that make up a new police department share operating expenses.
The president said that while using the technology can be beneficial, he remains cautious.
“You don’t want something that takes the officer out of the equation,” Fabik said.
Penn Township Chief Constable John Otto said situations where lethal force might emerge required split-second decision-making.
“Will computers be able to make decisions like that? I don’t think so,” he said.
Otto agreed that robots could serve a purpose in some cases and could be a way to keep human officers safe during potentially violent or dangerous situations.
Pittsburgh has emerged as a national leader in the robotics industry. According to the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, there are more than 140 organizations in the domestic robotics industry.
Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman Kara Cruz said the city’s police department does not have robots with lethal capabilities, and none are currently being considered.
Allegheny County Sheriff Christopher Kearns said the county has multiple bots, but none were designed with a lethal purpose, and such use was never discussed.
Kearns said the county’s SWAT department is using a “reconnaissance shooting robot,” which is intended to give the SWAT team a better look inside corners and into homes. Another SWAT robot can’t climb stairs and has never been used.
The county police explosive ordnance disposal team, also known as the bomb squad, also has multiple bots that are used to “scan and manipulate suspicious devices at a safe distance,” Kearns said.
Although Cairns said no lethal purposes were considered for interruption bots, he noted that the mission of the policy is to preserve life, and that the administration will “always consider any option that preserves the lives of hostages, innocent bystanders, or first responders.”
Harris acknowledged that there are circumstances in which lethal force robots might make sense and police departments would have a strong desire to use them.
In 2016, the Dallas Police Department used a bomb disposal robot equipped with an explosive device to kill a suspect who shot and killed five police officers.
But Harris said local governments should not allow a small number of justifiable cases to lead them to allow the widespread use of lethal force robots. He said cities have to be careful what they allow because police departments are not synonymous with the military.
Nurbakh said he could imagine scenarios where humans are allowed to remotely fire lethal weapons from robots, and then the next step where robots will fire independently but humans have veto control, followed by a reduction in the time it takes to veto. He said the police could justify these steps as necessary for public safety.
He also said that today’s robots are much more advanced than the bomb-dispersing robots of the past. There are legged robots out there that can outperform people in some situations, Norbakhsh said, and automation is making great strides in the field of robotics. He said there is no telling just what the robots can accomplish.
“This is the front of an endless wave of capabilities,” Nurbakhsh said.
Supervision is needed
Because of the ability of bots to use lethal force across a wide range of situations, Norbakhsh and Harris agree that more oversight should be established both at the government level and within the private sector.
No one fully understands the kind of mistakes robots and automotive technology can make, Nurbakh said. He pointed to the unusual behavior of automated vehicles and the errors they make, which differ from those made by human drivers.
He said he encourages private robotics companies to create ethics boards so decisions about police robotics can be scrutinized from an ethical mindset, not just from whatever applications police departments desire. He also wants private robotics companies to participate in ethics training if they sell robots to local police.
Harris notes that most states don’t have laws like California’s, and most municipalities can use lethal force robots without first notifying the public. He said state and local governments should create oversight of the use of lethal force bots and consider regulations now.
Ryan Ditto is a writer for the Tribune-Review. You can contact Ryan via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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