The Real Life Robocop and Why You Don’t Want It

2014 is the year it happens.  A company called Knightscope has developed a robotic crime fighting device – a Robocop – and it will be deployed in beta tests this year.  It looks less like the real Robocop and more like R2D2 and a sex toy had a baby than anything, but it’s real and the company says it is ready for real world testing.  It’s happening.  Some community, somewhere, hopped on this idea like stink on a monkey.

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The Knightscope K5 is 5 foot tall robot complete with GPS, radar, lidar, character recognition software, 360 degree HD cameras, thermal imaging and infrared and even ultrasonic and air quality monitoring devices.  It will detect anything and everything about the environment around it and use predictive analytics to determine risk factors for when crimes may occur.  All of this information will be stored somewhere, every image, every smell apparently, and it will even interface with social media to allow the public to assist in its monitoring of everyone, everywhere, all the time.

People cringed and name dropped George Orwell like it was going out of style when cities began instituting traffic light cameras.  This ought to be making those same people lose bowel control.  Now the police aren’t just watching you on the street, they’re measuring how fast you’re moving, what your ambient temperature is, how often you travel to different areas and the times you go there, how much time you spend there and what you’re doing, who you’re with and it’s all recorded in high definition to be stored at a central database accessible by….who?  Who knows?  Certainly by Knightscope, this Silicon Valley start up, and potentially by law enforcement, but then who else?    

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Don’t shoot me, I have just learned this thing you call…love.

If Knightscope’s robots use facial recognition technology, and they plan to, and these machines, along with similar drone type machines that will actually do the same monitoring from the air, are littered throughout your town, who might benefit from knowing exactly when you leave your house, where you go each and every minute while you’re out, how long you’re out, who you interact with, including what you say to each other?  How many companies would find these kind of analytics profitable?  And how many could use this in an unscrupulous way?  How many of us want people to know all this stuff?

The K5 robot represents the boldest step yet towards not just a police state, but a state in which privacy is simply a luxury we give away.  If the robots have full coverage in any given community, then everyone will be monitored 100% of the time, no exceptions.  Barring the Machiavellian ways this technology could be used in a conspiracy-theory Hollywood suspense sort of way to damage specific individuals, it’s the silly, mundane ways it can be used, and will be used, that should concern everyone.

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Imagine how terrible it would be if a Shia Labeouf movie came true.

Imagine a time when going out is part of your daily plans, but now part of the plans of 30 local businesses.  Because your daily activities have been monitored and catalogued and fed through predictive software, companies can guess where you’re going and what you’re doing each and every time you venture out.  Armed with that knowledge, McDonalds can direct Big Mac ads right to you, specifically, when they know you’re likely to be hungriest.  The local gas station can send you a nice text message when they know you’ve been driving around enough to have nearly emptied your tank.  The nearest motel can offer a discount the next time skip out on your lunch break to have sex.

It’s the stuff of fiction to worry that this technology will be used to stalk us while government agents try to frame us for murders.  It’s the stuff of reality to understand that this will be used to make money.  People will exploit where you go and what you do as much as they can when that information is as easy to get as clicking on a website.  Can the K5 robot be used to prevent or solve crimes?  Sure, probably.  But how many hours of footage will it record, how many conversations, how much data will it pull it each and every day that have nothing to do with crime at all?  And who will Knightscope being making that info available to?  Or, worse, who might be interested in taking it even if it’s not being offered?

If this robotic monitoring technology catches on, nevermind the invasiveness of Google Glass.  Privacy will literally cease to exist on the streets of America.