Earlier in the year, the New York Police Department acquired a new police dog. This isn’t your everyday canine unit, however. This addition to the NYPD is a ‘Spot’ robodog affectionately named Digidog.
The robotic dog was built by Boston Dynamics. You might be familiar with their videos of anthropomorphic and canine robots trying to navigate difficult terrain, open doors, or avoid getting knocked over by hockey sticks. And for the past few years, their robots have been available for purchase.
But now a police department has a robotic dog. As Futurism noted, the NYPD hasn’t disclosed how they intend to use their very un-cuddly robodog, but the mystery shouldn’t last long. As if anticipating such a scenario, in June 2020 the New York City Council passed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, which requires more public information and transparency on the technology used in law enforcement, including facial recognition, drones, and cell phone trackers, and the use of Digidog would fall under that new law.
Although some of its intended uses remain unclear, Digidog has already been deployed in an officer support capacity. The New York Times reported back in February that Digidog was used in a hostage situation to determine if either of the suspects remained inside the home after one of the hostages escaped.
The NYPD—and Boston Dynamics—maintain that there is nothing wrong with having a robotic dog join law enforcement. In fact, Boston Dynamics released a statement on February 19th (in response to a group planning to strap a paintball gun to another ‘Spot’ robot as a form of performance art/protest) saying “we condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation.”
But politicians and others aren’t so sure.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents part of New York City in Congress, tweeted after the February incident, “Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools.”
Meanwhile, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke out against the use of robot dogs by police enforcement in a March 2021 blog post. This tech, which they note is being adopted by many police forces including those in Massachusetts and Hawaii, is unnerving because it could be weaponized or allowed to operate autonomously, provoking all kinds of fears such as those so thoroughly explored in “Metalhead,” the flat-out terrifying episode of Black Mirror.
But the ACLU also points out that robots could be helpful tools as long as police forces are accountable for their use. As they wrote on their blog,
“full transparency and meaningful limitations are crucial. When powerful new surveillance or other police technology is introduced — especially one that is probably flexible enough to be used in many ways, good and bad, that we haven’t even thought of — it’s important that there be public conversations every step of the way.”
So it seems the ethical use of robot dogs in policing — and in art — is still an open question. Expect to hear a lot more about these issues in the coming months as more police departments and other organizations adopt robotic technology.
In other news
- Looking for a few good hacks. The company Zerodium, which is known for helping companies discover security flaws in their software, is paying big bounties for remote code execution exploits on default WordPress installations. As reported in WordPress Tavern, their usual payouts are $100K but they have recently tripled that payout. They are also paying big bucks (over $2 million!) for “’full chain, zero-click, with persistence” Android exploits. By offering so much money, they are encouraging skilled programmers to use their skills to find software vulnerabilities before the hackers do.
- Digging their way out of their walled garden. Facebook has announced their data transfer tool, first implemented back in 2019, will now allow you to transfer Facebook posts to Google Docs, WordPress.com, and Blogger. As Engadget points out, Facebook isn’t doing this out of kindness. Instead, they suggest Facebook is trying to prove that their data is portable (meaning it’s not locked within their platform) and “hopes to get ahead of legislation and regulations that might require data access.”
- Google and WordPress at odds over tracking tech. Google’s new tracking technology, FLoC, came under more pressure this week as WordPress considered a plan to block it as a security threat. According to Google engineers, FLoC, short for “Federated Leaning of Cohorts,” allows users to remain anonymous while still receiving relevant, targeted ads. But the tech industry is rightly concerned that this cookie replacement enables discrimination and will harm user privacy.
While the official WordPress team has made no firm decision, individual developers have already written two plugins that block FLoC from WordPress. Even if Matt Mullenweg and the higher-ups at WP decide to stop FLoC officially, it won’t be the end of the battle. As many browsers now block third-party cookies by default, Google will need to find new ways to target users with paid advertising.
- Rocket fuel made of waste plastic cups and bottles. In the race to space, spare a thought for efforts towards space governance and those trying to make space launches more eco-friendly. This week, BBC News interviewed Volodymyr Levykin, CEO of U.K. space firm Skyrora about their latest test; launching a 3D printed rocket using fuel made solely from waste plastics. Levykin said their fuel, called Ecosene, “exceeded our expectations, producing 45 percent less greenhouse gas and being 1-3 percent more energy efficient than traditional kerosene.” Skyrora aims to reduce the ‘space transport footprint’. It is hoped by re-using waste plastics to make rocket fuel, a greener future reducing reliance on fossil fuels is in sight for the space industry.
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[News] Robodogs: the new wave of law enforcement? .