US police have started testing robot dogs and you shouldn't be scared...yet

US police have officially started testing robot ‘dogs’ but, according to a robotics expert, the technology itself isn’t dangerous so long as it’s regulated.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union have revealed that Massachusetts police have started testing the capabilities of robotic police dogs.

As reported by WSBR Boston, the documents confirm the Massachusetts State Police leased Spot the robot dog from August to November 2019. 

A police spokesperson confirmed that Spot has been used in two incidents, mostly as a “mobile remote observation device”.

If you’re not aware of Spot, here’s an advertisement for it.

And here it is dancing to ‘Uptown Funk’,

And here it is opening a door for the Massachusetts State Police.

Last month, Boston Dynamics, the company that created the Spot, began leasing out the robots to companies.

Vice President for Business Development Michael Perry told WSBR that a rental condition stipulates that Spot is not allowed to be weaponised.

“Right now, our primary interest is sending the robot into situations where you want to collect information in an environment where it's too dangerous to send a person, but not actually physically interacting with the space,” Perry said.

This sentiment was echoed by the Massachusetts police department although they were not able to confirm the exact tasks that Spot was carrying out.

For Queensland University of Technology Senior Robotics Lecturer Dr Feras Dayoub, the greatest concern is when the introduction of technology outstrips the introduction of policy. 

“Every time [the police] use a technology there should be policy and guidelines and transparency to cover the use,” he told The Feed.

“[The introduction of Spot] will open many questions and these are the questions we should be asking now.”

There have been several instances where technology has been introduced before policy by US police.

In 2012, a drug trafficking conviction was reversed after the Supreme Court ruled that US police must obtain a warrant before they use GPS to track a car.

Then, in 2015 a similar situation occurred when it was ruled that police must obtain a warrant before they can track a cell phone.

Dr Dayoub says that robots have been used in police work for years and, despite the very convincing videos, Spot is mostly remote controlled.  

“Currently, it gives you an assisted autonomy, it has more capabilities but really it’s not a huge step forward,” he says.

“For example, the arm manipulation is not an easy task to do autonomously, you may have seen a video of the robot open a door and walk through. This is a person controlling the robot.”

While the multi-terrain capabilities of Spot are impressive, Dr Dayoub says that there’s a long way to go before the public needs to be wary of killer robot dogs the likes of which we’ve seen in Black Mirror.

“We are not there yet technology wise, machine learning software is almost there but in-body AI - we’re just not there,” he says.

However, he says we’re not completely out of the woods.

There will come a time where these robots are completely autonomous but it will happen gradually and the policy makers need to catch up before then.

While the technology for autonomous robot dogs doesn't exist yet, Dr Dayoub is confident assisted autonomy robots like Spot will eventually become everyday objects.

“We’re at the point where you can’t imagine the world without mobile phones or drones and we will get to the point where we can’t imagine the world without these robots,” he said.

“It will become part of our life in the future.”

Until then, Dr Dayoub impresses the importance to not sensationalise the technology but to instead focus on education.

 “If you don’t know how something works you start assigning a high level of agency. Raising the fear of it is not enough, people need to ask questions about what this technology can and can’t do.”

 “You shouldn’t be scared but you should be asking when the policy is being made and how is it going to protect humans.”

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