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Meet NYC’s New Robot Cops

I’m back. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: New York City Mayor’s Office

In late 2020, the NYPD announced the deployment of one “Digidog,” its nickname for a small quadrupedal robot made by Boston Dynamics. The backlash was swift and severe. Critics cited privacy concerns, safety risks, and costs, but they hardly needed to make their case, because Digidog was creepy as hell. It went viral in the bad way almost immediately and was taken off the streets within a few months.

Then-mayor Bill de Blasio claimed, through a spokesperson, to be glad they were gone. Now-mayor Eric Adams has different plans. “Digidog is out of the pound,” he said on Tuesday. And now it’s got a friend.

In a Times Square press conference, Mayor Adams, joined by NYPD leadership, announced the acquisition of two Digidogs — Boston Dynamics Spot robots, to be specific — at a cost of $750,000. (According to the NYPD, the cost of the Digidogs was covered by “forfeiture money.”) The NYPD also announced that it would be leasing a single K5 “autonomous security robot,” for testing, with its first assignments “either in Times Square or the subway station.”

For a decade, now, Boston Dynamics has been releasing unsettling demo videos of its two- and four-legged robots. Here’s an early version of Spot, a.k.a. Digidog:

You’ve probably seen some of these before — they’re the winking de facto face of the imminent machine uprising that never quite seems to materialize. (Boston Dynamics, which is now owned by Hyundai after brief stints at Google and then Softbank, last year signed a pledge not to “weaponize” its products.) They’ve been adopted elsewhere by bomb squads; the NYPD suggests they could be useful for surveillance or in hostage situations. It is still, in practice, an unarmed remote-controlled robot dog with limited range, a profoundly weird vibe, and a top speed of about three miles per hour.

On the other hand, the K5, made by Knightscope, is the robot the public is most likely to encounter (early in its deployment, the NYPD says, it will be accompanied by a human officer).

It’s an eggy rolling bollard, basically; you might flatter it by saying it’s R2-D2-ish. NYPD chief of department Jeffrey Maddrey went with “similar to like a Roomba, a robot vacuum,” which is actually fairly apt, in the sense that it’s capable of sucking up a lot of data wherever it goes. The K5 is a rolling surveillance device, equipped with cameras, sensors, and communications hardware. (“We are not using facial recognition technology in any of these devices,” the NYPD said, although Knightscope advertises such a feature, and, in 2023, any recorded video that contains a face should be understood as fundamentally available to facial-recognition software.)

The NYPD will be years behind the first police departments to deploy Knightscope robots, although they’re most popular with private clients, who lease them to patrol parking lots and garages, large unattended areas near and inside warehouses, and sidewalks. (Knightscope markets them to HOAs, as well as hospitals, hotels, and schools.) Where they’re “hired,” they haven’t always been welcome, and their efficacy is far from clear. In 2016, a K5 patrolling a Silicon Valley mall knocked over and injured a toddler. That same year, an intoxicated man identifying himself as an engineer who wanted to “test” the robot encountered a K5 in a Mountain View parking lot and kicked it over. In Washingon, D.C., in 2017, a K5 charged with patrolling around an office building rolled itself into a fountain.

In San Francisco, clients who hired K5 robots to patrol nearby sidewalks were separately accused of using the machines to drive away unhoused people. In Huntington Park, California, in 2019, a police robot stationed in a park finally got some action. It didn’t go perfectly:

When a fight broke out recently in the parking lot of Salt Lake Park, a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Cogo Guebara did what seemed the most practical thing at the time: she ran over to the park’s police robot to push its emergency alert button.

“I was pushing the button but it said, ‘step out of the way,’” Guebara said. “It just kept ringing and ringing, and I kept pushing and pushing.”

Most K5s, most of the time, do quiet surveillance of quiet places, without much incident — they are, again, mobile cameras and deterrence devices, often stationed where there are few or no people, and where, the company suggests to prospective clients, human security guards might be too expensive or unreliable. Places that could not be less like Times Square, in other words, or a midtown subway station, which are both hyper-surveilled and heavily populated by people who very much don’t like to be obstructed from walking. To NYC’s new snitchbots, a couple pieces of advice: Watch your six, and probably stay off the yellow line.

Meet NYC’s New Robot Cops