By Karen Asp
What is the K5 “autonomous data robot”? This seems to be the underlying question in various news reports covering the recent commercial launch of Silicon Valley-based Knightscope’s new security technology. And it is quickly followed by more questions that in essence ask, what does it mean for us? Does it mean that security guards will no longer be required to do boring and dangerous patrol work, or does it imply job losses due to automation?
Should we celebrate the opportunity for improved surveillance of private property, or worry about further diminishment of privacy rights? These questions are being framed through analogical references to movies and movie characters, but the references by no means settle them. In this respect, it is not surprising that the cartoonish Star Wars character R2-D2 is frequently evoked to describe the K5, given the latter’s unequivocally non-humanoid design, its capacity for autonomous movement, and its data collection and social interaction features (Markoff 2013, McDuffee 2014, Vazquez 2014). Its seemingly benign alien appearance has even evoked feelings of endearment on the part of some who have encountered it, according to Knightscope. People have referred to it as “cute” and have tried hugging it. But just how like R2-D2 is the K5?
The Atlantic ran a headline stating that the K5 is “less RoboCop and more R2-D2” because the robot is not “weaponized” (McDuffee 2014). Like RoboCop it is on the side of the good in terms of protecting people and property, nonetheless it is more of a scout than a warrior. Yet the K5 is equipped with 360-degree surveillance sensors, live video tracking, predictive analytic software and an optical character recognition feature that enables it to read license plates. Given these attributes and capacities, a privacy rights organization representative has said that the K5 “is like R2D2’s evil twin” (Markoff 2013). This account suggests that while the K5 may look like R2-D2, the similarity is an illusion because the K5 is designed to perform inherently invasive tasks, tasks that can facilitate even more illegitimate assaults on individual rights and freedoms.
Perhaps despite themselves, the K5’s developers further explicate these potentially negative implications by defining the K5 through references to movies: “We don’t want to think about ‘RoboCop’ or “Terminator,’ we prefer to think of a mash-up of ‘Batman,’ ‘Minority Report’ and R2D2” (Markoff 2013). In this constellation of references, the ethical and political implications of the “pre-cog” surveillance system, as portrayed in Minority Report, readily negate R2-D2’s seemingly benevolent aspect. Here, the K5 both is, and is not, like R2-D2. Indeed, one might say that the K5 is like R2-D2 with respect to the functional attributes of an apparently ethically neutral “autonomous data machine” – a self-piloting, socially and environmentally interactive computer on wheels. And it is unlike R2-D2 insofar as it is haunted by an ambiguous ethical purpose articulated in a “mash-up” of “pre-cog” technology and that very same, cartoonish figure of R2-D2.
In describing her encounter with the K5, MIT Technology Review writer Rachel Mech (2014) observed that, “The robots managed to appear both cute and intimidating. This friendly-but-not-too-friendly presence is meant to serve them well in jobs like monitoring corporate and college campuses, shopping malls, and schools.” On this account, the robots are intended to induce mixed feelings. Yet in what seems to be a casual introductory reference, Mech invokes “Daleks” rather than R2-D2 to aid in describing the K5’s appearance, ostensibly because the former are tall in stature, like the K5, which is 3.47 meters (5 feet) in height. R2-D2, on the other hand, is a mere 3.1 meters tall. But Daleks, who featured in the Dr. Who TV series, were intimidating for many reasons; they were, after all, a non-empathic race of robot-looking cyborgs bent on universal domination. Mech is not alone in referring to Daleks rather than R2-D2 to characterize the K5, and some, such as Sebastian Anthony (2014), suggest certain more sinister implications of that reference. Among other things, Daleks certainly would not invite hugs. Fiction may be helping commentators frame their questions concerning the new K5 security robot, but it is not providing them with neatly delineated boundaries or easy answers.
(Feature image source: Knightscope, fair use)
Anthony, S. 2014 (Nov 17). Here Come the Autonomous Robot Security Guards: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? ExtremeTech. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/194338-here-come-the-autonomous-robot-security-guards-what-could-possibly-go-wrong
Markoff, J. 2013 (Nov 29). A Night Watchman on Wheels? New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/03/science/coming-soon-a-night-watchman-with-wheels.html?_r=1&
McDuffee, A. 2014 (Nov 22). The New Security Robot Watching Over Silicon Valley Is Less RoboCop and More R2-D2. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/security-robot-watching-over-silicon-valley-is-less-robocop-and-more-r2d2/383078/
Metz, R. 2014 (Nov 13). Rise of the Robot Security Guards: Startup Knightscope is Preparing to Roll Out Human-size Robot Patrols. MIT Technology Review. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/532431/rise-of-the-robot-security-guards/
Vazquez, J. 2014 (Nov 18). Crime-fighting Robots Go on Patrol in Silicon Valley. CBC SF Bay Area. http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/11/18/crime-fighting-robots-go-on-patrol-in-silicon-valley-k5-knightscope-mountain-view-stacy-stephens-autonomous-security-guard/