Robot Cops

There’s an interesting debate underway in San Francisco about the use of robots to assist the police. The police want to use seven remote-controlled robots in certain situations, such as to check out and if necessary defuse apparent bombs, or to provide video surveillance of a standoff situation. The issue that has raised concern is whether, and if so under what circumstances, the police could use the robots to apply deadly force.

The police have said that they don’t have plans to create “killer robots” carrying guns, but they don’t want to rule out the possibility of using the robots to carry explosives in extreme situations, where there is imminent risk of loss of life to police officers or the public that outweighs any other options. Critics say that those standards are too vague, and that allowing the use of robots in deadly force situations further militarizes the police and creates unacceptable risks for poor and minority communities, where there is already significant distrust of police activities.

Last night the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which had voted last week to allow the police to use the robots in limited deadly force situations, reversed course and banned such use of the robots for now. The Supervisors referred the issue to a committee for further study, and some Supervisors said that they wanted to give the public additional time to understand and react to the robot issue. The robot issue surfaced in the first place because of a recently enacted California law that requires police departments to inventory and seek approval for the use of military-grade equipment in law enforcement activities–a process that obviously contemplates public engagement with policing issues.

American police departments clearly have grown increasingly militarized over the past few decades, and the use of technology in police activities–whether it is helicopters, or drones, or armored vehicles, or advanced SWAT team equipment–is common. Most Americans, presumably, would have no objection to using robots to neutralize bombs, so that human lives are not put at risk. But using robots to apply lethal force raises different issues. Would using robotic delivery systems, thereby removing human beings from direct and immediate involvement, make the police more likely to use deadly force in the first place? Will police departments be tempted to increase their use of what they may consider to be cool new toys? And, more fundamentally, is it a good idea for police to use robots as a kind of technological interface with the public at large, increasing the perception that the police are divorced from the communities they serve and taking us farther and farther away from the cop on the beat of days gone by, who was part of the neighborhood?

These are tough issues that deserve some careful thought. I think the San Francisco supervisors are wise to take their time and let the public weigh in before deploying a force of “killer robots.”