The state of Hawaii is now using robot dogs to patrol homeless communities for signs of COVID-19 infections. Like something straight out of a dystopian cyberpunk novel, the Honolulu Police Department procured a robotic dog from Boston Dynamics to patrol and monitor a homeless encampment.
The high-tech surveillance device is the latest phase in the ever-growing effort to surveil the public, but its deployment has prompted a backlash in other police departments where similar equipment has been used.
Armed with cameras, artificial intelligence to guide its navigation and movement, and autonomous data collection capabilities, the robot scans the eyes of anyone within its periphery to detect fevers, which is a common indicator of a COVID-19 infection. With its two-way communication system, the operator is then able to interview anyone who tests positive.
Speaking at a media demonstration of the robotic surveillance device, Lt. Joseph O’Neal of the Honolulu Police Department said he publicly supported its use.
“A person will ask for food. They will ask for water. They’ll ask for masks. These were all things that we had to do face to face with someone, and we could facilitate through the robot. And that was the reason for it,” said the police lieutenant.
The officer played down civil rights concerns, stating “ours is purely humanitarian, and we have not had a single person out there say ‘that’s scary, that’s worrisome.’”
“It’s more of a positive interaction,” he added, “and is no way intimidating.”
When the New York City Police Department unleashed their own procurement of the Boston Dynamics robot in the city last year, the effort received widespread backlash from citizens concerned about the implications.
A number of New York politicians, including progressive Democrat Rep. Jamaal Bowman pushed back against the NYPD.
“This is some Robocop stuff,” he said, “This is crazy.”
Following the backlash, the NYPD returned the dog to Boston Dynamics and ended its $94,000 contract with the company.
The Boston Dynamics robot was developed in conjunction with the Pentagon and DARPA early on in its development to research mechanized platforms for military use.
Beyond Hawaii, the robot dog has found utility in other countries, including Singapore, where it performs surveillance on park-goers and plays a prerecorded message to visitors to remind them to maintain their social distance.
Following a brief trial to help manage social distancing regulations, the Singaporean government has stepped up its use of the robots to a fully surveillance capacity to monitor public locations for “undesirable social behaviours” like flouting COVID-19 safety measures (not wearing masks), smoking in forbidden locations and incorrect bicycle parking.
The Singaporean government argues that the robots help to address the labour shortage by reducing the number of police officers required for foot patrol duty.