EXCLUSIVE: Robot cops secretly roaming Valley campuses, gagged by "the most strict NDA" the maker has ever seen

By James Robinson , written on May 22, 2014

From The News Desk

In February, we reported from Launch Festival about Knightscope’s robotic police officer (or K5 autonomous data machine, whichever term takes your fancy).

Standing five-feet tall, the K5 looks like a cross between R2D2 and a washing machine, with the capability to roam outdoors autonomously, scanning its environment every 25 milliseconds through 360-degree video, able to recognize gestures, faces and run 300 license plates a minute.

At the time, the company said it was about to begin beta testing of its robot cop on campus at a major Silicon Valley company.

Obviously there are major privacy -- and safety -- concerns about a robot cop (or, well, robocop) wandering around Silicon Valley, photographing suspected law-breakers and capturing the faces and license plates of everyone it sees. Presumably any tech company considering deploying such a controversial robot on its campus would want to be seen to be doing so openly and transparently, lest it feed into the public's already heightened "surveillance valley" paranoia.

And yet, three months later we couldn't find a single reference to the robo-renta-cops being deployed on a tech campus.

“There’s a reason for that,” says Knightscope co-founder Stacy Dean Stephens when I call him for comment.

“We’ve had to sign the most strict NDA I’ve ever entered into in my career,” he adds. This by the way, is a career which includes a stint in law enforcement as a police officer in Texas. “We have to be highly secret about what we’re doing and where we’re doing it.”

In other words, it's highly likely that, right now, a robot cop is being tested on a top-tier Silicon Valley corporate campus -- spying on employees and visitors alike -- but we're not allowed to know where or how. And if you were hoping an employee might blow the whistle, or at least Instagram one of the scary metal bastards -- well, you're out of luck there too: “The corporations we’re dealing with tend to have a policy, where if you see people working on something that’s out there, you keep it to yourself,” Stephens says.

Stephens confirms to me that the first of these tests began in January, with several more beginning in March. Given Knightscope’s home is in Mountain View the Silicon Valley was a natural spot to focus on, keeping them close to its customer base for trouble-shooting.

Stephens insists that the secrecy is less about keeping the public in the dark and more because law enforcement and security agencies are notoriously shy about publicly endorsing any product. He also denies being cagey about the privacy concerns.

“We don’t shy away from that conversation,” Stephens says. Privacy concerns are raised to the company constantly, he says, adding that he's sympathetic to those concerns.

Since beginning testing, the Knightscope robot has gone through three sets of changes to its hardware and software and the fleet has grown from a single machine out to several. Stephens says watching these secret tests happen -- wherever in the world that might be -- has been “unbelievably cool.”

“To see the K5 in an environment with people, stopping, going around them, not impeding, learning autonomously about its environment, has been amazing.”

Pando has reached out to Apple, Facebook, Google, Genentech and Yahoo for comment to see if they are the mystery robot tester. At the time this piece went to press, none was saying a word.

If you've seen a K5, or other mysterious robot cop, roaming your workplace, please let me know.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]