Knightscope's new robotic law enforcer is like staring at the demise of humanity

By James Robinson , written on February 24, 2014

From The News Desk

Knightscope’s autonomous, crime fighting robot has the complexion of a washing machine. In pictures it looks cute, the size of a penguin maybe. In person it is five feet tall with intimidating breadth. It moves steadily and with insistence. If you stare at it long enough, the twin panels of lights about two-thirds of the way up its body start to take on the appearance of shifty, judgmental eyes. It sees what you're doing and wants you to cut it out.

The full name of the Knightscope robot on display at the Launch Festival this morning was the K5 beta prototype. Former Ford Motor Company executive and Knightscope CEO William Santana Li describes it to MC and festival organizer Jason Calacanis onstage as a “crime fighting autonomous data machine.” But that doesn’t come close to doing it justice.

This is society’s collective fantasy of a robot, part-R2D2, part-Robocop, part-WALL-E, part-Rocky’s plaything in Rocky 4, mixed in with a our shared technological nightmares. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t.

As Santana Li outlines proudly, the beast before him on stage takes in 360-degree video through four cameras, is capable of thermal imaging, registers gestures, recognizes faces and can run 300 license plates in a single minute. It works off proximity GPS and scans its environment every 25 milliseconds. It runs off nearly identical technology to Google’s self-driving cars. He boasts that it can see, feel, hear and smell. It is autonomous, will roam outdoors, can take video, decide when it needs to return and charge its batteries and can detect biological and chemical pathogens and radiation.

The Knightscope will get put out in the field gathering data, Santana Li says. The owner can log in to a security panel and get a read of what is going on in the area. The robot can scan license plates and report back on stolen cars. Its facial recognition capabilities can alert its owner to any registered sex offender in the area. The sample dashboard Santana Li logs in to, shows that the robot can report back about things as specific as how many people are lying horizontal and how many are gesturing with their hands. The company is working on giving it a 3M graffiti proof sheen, it emits a piercing sound if someone tries to tip it over and the machines will often work in pairs so they can protect each other.

For law enforcement officers, using Knightscope, Santana Li says they will be able to get real time data and a precise heat map of where to focus their efforts. Knightscope will figure out for police where they should be looking. Next month the machines will be rolled out for a test client in an undisclosed location. Scared yet?

Santana Li has different rationales for why Knightscope should exist. It is going to be offered as a “machine as a service business model,” he says. It will retail for $3,000 a month. The machine works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which he reminds us works out to about $4 an hour with “no pension liability.”

The law enforcement apparatus we have will not scale with population growth. The security industry has a 100-400 percent employee turnover rate. “The jobs aren’t all that great,” Santana Li says. He envisions a security company having seven machines for three humans and outsourcing some of the process.

Crime has a $1 trillion impact on the American economy, according to Santana Li. “If we can show that we can literally cut that in half, we’re going to have every mayor in the country calling us,” he says.

But in extrapolating upon this, Santana Li hits entirely upon why Knightscope is a disturbing invention. “The first line of defense for law enforcement is to physically be there. The presence of law enforcement changes behavior,” he says. If every mayor in the country did hypothetically come knocking, Knightscope threatens to make law enforcement omnipresent. It’s less a crowd control tool than a behavioral control device, making our entire existences akin to the moment when you drive past a police officer on a freeway.

As Santana Li wraps up, Calacanis takes a spot poll from the crowd. Many times more people express concern than excitement.

“We’re on the cutting edge here, and this should give you a little discomfort,” Santana Li says. “This is much more efficient than a human.” He sees the Knightscope as disrupting law enforcement, revolutionary on the ATM machine or the PC.

Disrupting law enforcement though, by proxy has the capability to disrupt civil liberties, which is a disturbing can of worms to open. Humans may be less efficient than Knightscope, but we have empathy and emotional judgment. There’s a reason an invention like this has remained the realm of dystopian fiction so far, because it’s a safe bet more people would be okay with a less efficient police force than a partially robotic one.

Or something. I should probably watch my words though. This guy looks like he reads his own press.

[image via Knightscope]