Robotic Police Dogs: Useful Hounds or Dehumanizing Machines?

Hawaii Public Radio

APA robotic dog called Spot trots during a Honolulu Police Department demonstration to reporters Friday, May 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher)

HONOLULU — If you’re homeless and looking for temporary shelter in Honolulu, expect a visit from a robotic police dog that will scan your eye to make sure you don’t have a fever.

That’s just one of the ways public safety agencies are starting to use Spot, the best-known of a new commercial category of robots that trot around with animal-like agility.

The handful of police officials experimenting with the four-legged machines say they’re just another tool, like existing drones and simple wheeled robots, to keep emergency responders out of harm’s way as they scout for dangers. But privacy watchdogs — the human kind — warn that police are secretly rushing to buy the robots without setting safeguards against aggressive, invasive or dehumanizing uses.

In Honolulu, the police department spent about $150,000 in federal pandemic relief money to buy their Spot from robotics firm Boston Dynamics for use at a government-run tent city near the airport.

“Because these people are houseless it’s considered OK to do that,” said Jongwook Kim, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi. “At some point it will come out again for some different use after the pandemic is over.”

Acting Lt. Joseph O’Neal of the Honolulu Police Department’s community outreach unit defended the robot’s use in a media demonstration earlier this year. He said it has protected officers, shelter staff and residents by scanning body temperatures between meal times at a shelter where homeless people could quarantine and get tested for COVID-19. The robot is also used to remotely interview individuals who have tested positive.

“We have not had a single person out there that said, ‘That’s scary, that’s worrisome,’” O’Neal said. “We don’t just walk around and arbitrarily scan people.”

Police use of such robots is still rare and largely untested — and hasn’t always gone over well with the public. Honolulu officials faced a backlash when a local news organization, Honolulu Civil Beat, revealed that the Spot purchase was made with federal relief money.

“One of the big challenges is accurately describing the state of the technology to people who have never had personal experience with it,” Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, said in an interview. “Most people are applying notions from science fiction to what the robot’s doing.”

For one of its customers, the Dutch national police, explaining the technology includes emphasizing that Spot is a very good robot — well-behaved and not so smart after all.

“It doesn’t think for itself,” Marjolein Smit, director of the special operations unit of the Dutch national police, said of the remote-controlled robot. “If you tell it to go to the left, it will go to the left. If you tell it to stop, it will stop.”

Earlier this year, her police division sent its Spot into the site of a deadly drug lab explosion near the Belgian border to check for dangerous chemicals and other hazards.

Perry said the company’s acceptable use guidelines prohibit Spot’s weaponization or anything that would violate privacy or civil rights laws, which he said puts the Honolulu police in the clear. It’s all part of a year-long effort by Boston Dynamics, which for decades relied on military research grants, to make its robots seem friendlier and thus more palatable to local governments and consumer-oriented businesses.

By contrast, a lesser-known rival, Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics, has no qualms about weaponization and supplies its dog-like robots to several branches of the U.S. military and its allies.

“It’s just plug and play, anything you want,” said Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh, who was critical of Boston Dynamics’ stated ethical principles as “selective morality” because of the company’s past involvement with the military.

Parikh added that his company doesn’t market its four-legged robots to police departments, though he said it would make sense for police to use them. “It’s basically a camera on a mobile device,” he said.

There are roughly 500 Spot robots now in the wild. Perry said they’re commonly used by utility companies to inspect high-voltage zones and other hazardous areas. Spot is also used to monitor construction sites, mines and factories, equipped with whatever sensor is needed for the job.

It’s still mostly controlled by humans, though all they have to do is tell it which direction to go and it can intuitively climb stairs or cross over rough terrain. It can also operate autonomously, but only if it’s already memorized an assigned route and there aren’t too many surprise obstacles.

“The first value that most people see in the robot is taking a person out of a hazardous situation,” Perry said.

Kim, of the ACLU in Hawaiʻi, acknowledged that there might be many legitimate uses for such machines, but said opening the door for police robots that interact with people is probably not a good idea. He pointed to how Dallas police in 2016 stuck explosives on a wheeled robot to kill a sniper, fueling an ongoing debate about “killer robots” in policing and warfighting.

“There’s the potential for these robots to increase the militarization of police departments and use it in ways that are unacceptable,” Kim said. “Maybe it’s not something we even want to let law enforcement have.”


Google co-founder Larry Page has spent time during the Pandemic on Islands in Fiji

TAVARUA, FIJI — Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, has spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic on tropical islands in Fiji, entering the country via a government system that allows wealthy individuals to avoid COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to Business Insider.

Page has stayed mostly on Tavarua island, to the west of the main Fijian island, according to two different people who have seen him there in the past year, cited by Insider. Fiji has closed its borders to tourists and business passengers during the pandemic. However, it has made an exception for ‘for yachts and pleasure craft wanting to explore our islands,’ in the form of what it calls “Blue Lanes.”

Under the system of Blue Lanes, yacht owners can enter the country with minimal restrictions, including a negative COVID test. They must quarantine for 14 days, but this includes time spent travelling on their vessels. Page’s time in Fiji has been largely unreported, however a donation of COVID medical supplies he made to the country was briefly made public by a journalist at Fijian Broadcasting Company News. Citing a person familiar with the story, Business Insider reports that Fijian health authorities asked the network to take the information down, saying it should not be public.

Surprise Appearance by ‘Bigfoot’ at Birthday Party Terrifies Tots

Bigfoot made a surprise appearance at the gathering and terrified the tots in attendance. According to a local media report, the amusing moment occurred earlier this week as the McPherson family were celebrating daughter Blaynee Mae’s sixth birthday. Since they were on vacation at the time, the girl’s mom was unable to procure an elaborate cake for the event and, instead, came up with what she thought was a clever idea in the form of a visit from a performing ‘Bigfoot.’ “I mean she came with balloons and a bow and a tutu, so I thought ‘oh this will be cute and fun,” Brett McPherson recalled, “well my kids did not have that reaction.”

When the tutu-clad cryptid, who goes by the name ‘Cinnamon,’ arrived on the scene and peered into the window, the children at the party were understandably taken aback by the Sasquatch surprise. Sheer terror soon spread throughout the gathering as some of the kids burst into tears at the frightening sight while others simply screamed in fright. “They hit the ground like a tornado was coming. It was like they were on fire or something,” Brett told a local TV station, “we just never expected that kind of reaction.” Fortunately, the kids managed to calm down after the ‘creature’ was let into the house and the adults in attendance gave their proverbial stamp of approval to the unexpected party guest.

Epic Monkey War Erupts in Thai City

A city in Thailand saw traffic come to a sudden halt when the streets were overrun by an epic battle that unfolded between rival gangs of monkeys. The wild scene, which was caught on film by amazed residents, reportedly erupted in the community of Lopburi last week. Much to the chagrin of commuters, hundreds of monkeys amassed in huge groups and faced off at an intersection in the city. After a few minutes of bluster and screeching, the creatures engaged in combat while drivers took cover inside their vehicles and watched the fight unfold.

It is believed that the proverbial monkey war was sparked by a scarcity of food as Lopburi is a popular tourist destination that has been hard by the pandemic, which has led to fewer visitors feeding the creatures that call the city home. Perhaps owing to this ongoing predicament, one local source indicated that the specific showdown between the simians was something of a turf war between three separate groups of monkeys likely looking to increase their territory in the snack-deprived city.

Weird ‘Shapeshifting UFO’ Filmed by Bewildered Airline Passenger

A curious video circulating online shows an odd white object changing forms as it floats alongside an airliner and some have suggested that it could be some kind of shapeshifting craft. The rather lengthy piece of footage was posted to YouTube by the channel Disclose Screen. As is often the case, details surrounding the origins of the video are scant, at best, with the only insights being that it was captured by a German individual as they were a passenger on a plane. Be that as it may, the footage is rather fascinating to watch.

In the video, the puzzling anomaly can be seen seemingly hovering outside the aircraft and, at various times, changing into different shapes, including going from a circular form to an almost stick-like appearance. When the witness attempts to zoom in on the object, it appears somewhat transparent, leading some observers to suggest that perhaps it is a “plasma-based life form.” That said, more skeptical viewers say that the ‘UFO’ is merely water or crystals on the window of the plane. What’s your take on the footage?

With videos a person has to somewhat skeptical. Lots of tricks can be applied to videos.