If there was an emergency and you saw a police robot patrolling the area, a reasonable person would expect that simply pushing its emergency alert button would call for help. That’s what a California woman reportedly tried to do. In reality, the robot told her to get out of the way and carried on with its business.
According to NBC News, Cogo Guebara noticed the police robot when a fight broke out in the parking lot of Salt Lake Park. However, despite pressing the emergency alert button multiple times, the robot merely asked Guebara to step aside and continued to scoot along its preprogrammed path, occasionally telling people to keep the park clean. Ultimately, someone had to call 911 the old fashioned way and fifteen minutes later, a woman involved in the fight was rolled out on stretcher with a bleeding cut on her head. Cool.
The robot in question is the HP RoboCop—an Dalek-shaped security robot that happens to have the word “POLICE” emblazoned on its body. It’s operated by Knightscope, a company whose useless security bots are famous for multiple goofs, including clobbering a toddler and falling into a fountain. Normally, Knightscope robots are limited as a form of mall cop. In this instance, the HP RoboCops are part of a pilot program with Huntington Park’s police department—hence why it’s labeled as POLICE in the first place.
So why was the RoboCop so friggin’ useless? Apparently, the alert button doesn’t actually connect to the police department just yet. Instead, the calls get redirected to Knightscope. And while it does capture live 24/7 video, the police department can’t actually access those feeds either. Plus, it’s confined to cement walkways, meaning it currently can’t monitor anywhere beyond the north end of Huntington Park. So in summary, the HP RoboCop is a robot that can only patrol a limited area, doesn’t call for help, and all the footage it captures isn’t immediately accessible to the local police department.
The kicker? This useless RoboCop costs $60,000-$70,000 to lease per year. Or, the same salary as a human cop in the Huntington Park department who probably could break up a fight if needed. Area residents told NBC News that the robot’s presence did make them feel safer, but given its actual uselessness, it’s clear the Knightscope robots are little more than a pricey placebo. Of course, many Americans might find that’s as good as the human cops that patrol their neighborhoods and it didn’t shoot anyone, so maybe it’s not the craziest thing to consider using for public safety.
In general, robotics is still a nascent technology. While Boston Dynamics bots definitely represent a step forward in engineering, the cost and actual capabilities of what robots can do rarely matches what enthusiasts promise. Take companion robots. Last year, plenty of high-profile social robots were taken off the market. Despite their cuteness, functionally most weren’t much better than voice assistants and cost astronomically more. As a result, their companies ran out of money as their bots failed to find a wider audience.
The HP RoboCop debacle is just another example—a troubling thought, given last year Knightscope announced a contest in the wake of the Parkland shootings. The idea was to send its K5 patrol bot to the winning school in a bid to help improve security. That’s, maybe, not the most effective idea.