Hawaii Patrols Homeless Encampment with Robot Dog Named Spot

Public safety agencies in Hawaii are using robots to detect if the homeless have signs of Covid-19. The Hawaii police department has employed Spot, the robot dog, since early this year. The robot’s main job is to patrol and monitor a government-sanctioned homeless tent city near the Honolulu airport. Spot scans people’s eyes for fevers, a symptom of Covid-19, and interviews people who test positive.

Spot is equipped with cameras, 2-way communication AI, and autonomous data collection features.

The departments using the robots defend their use as similar to drones that keep officers out of harm’s way while scoping out the scene for dangers. Some people have expressed concern that the police are using them without” setting safeguards against aggressive, invasive or dehumanizing uses.”

Honolulu Police Department Lt. Joseph O’Neal does not share the same concerns, stating:

“A person will ask for food. They will ask for water. They’ll ask for masks. These were all things that we had to do face to face with someone, and we could facilitate [these things] through the robot. And that was the reason for it.”

Spot was purchased from the robotics firm Boston Dynamics for about $150,000. The money used was from federal pandemic relief funds. O’neal notes that all of the interactions with Spot have been positive, and the robot is not intimidating. He said, “We have not had a single person out there that said, ‘That’s scary, that’s worrisome.’ We don’t just walk around and arbitrarily scan people.”

Last year the NYPD also employed a Spot robot.

The robot was used to respond to a domestic dispute at a public housing complex. Many locals were disturbed by the robot, and Democrat Rep. Jamaal Bowman stated, “This is some Robocop stuff. This is crazy.” After significant pushback, the police department terminated their $94,000 contract and returned Spot.

In Singapore, a Spot robot reminds people to observe the Covid-19 protocol.

This includes things like staying one meter apart and reminders to wear masks. It started as a 2-week trial, but the Singaporean government has increased the robot’s use to patrol parks. The robot monitors if people are smoking in prohibited locations or are parking bikes in incorrect spaces. The government claims that the robots are helping with the labor shortage by reducing the number of officers needed on patrol.

The expansion of AI technologies is appealing to help with Covid-19 measures. Vivek Krishnamurthy warned they’d be challenging to scale back once employed.

When speaking at The Ethics of Surveillance Technology during a Global Pandemic, he stated, “My longer-term concern is that measures that are enacted to fight a crisis tend to become the ‘new normal’ after the crisis has passed…I fear that many of the new surveillance tools that have been deployed to fight the coronavirus are going to be with us well after the virus is vanquished.


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