When it comes to developing and applying new technologies, the guiding principle should always be: just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should.
If you had told me at the start of the year I’d be fascinated by a story about robotic police dogs I’d have told you that you were barking...sorry. But since we wrote about Singapore piloting mechanical mongrels back in May, it has dominated the thinking of the SmartCitiesWorld team.
Partly it’s the quirky design, partly it’s the name Spot, but mostly it’s the fact it actually exists. One of the great cliches about smart cities is how it will make the fictional real, bringing the cities imagined in science fiction books and cinema to life. But sometimes this falls short - concepts are merely clever marketing or something that sadly never gets beyond the trial stage. This isn’t. It taps into something that is viscerally fascinating about the smart cities space; why I love writing about it and why you are working within it.
Inevitably there is a "but". Law enforcement is rightly in the spotlight with the death of George Floyd in the United States and smartphones bringing more examples of police brutality to light. Is now really the time to start throwing robots into the mix? Granted, Spot patrols public parks and merely broadcasts messages to citizens to enforce social distancing. But Matar, the Multi-purpose All-terrain Autonomous Robot, are deployed in migrant areas, moving this concept from the fantastical into the dystopian.
There is the great line in Jurassic Park where the mathematician Ian Malcolm says that just because scientists felt they could do something, doesn’t mean that they should.
Just because Singapore is using robotics for law enforcement today doesn’t mean they will start deploying something akin to ED-209 from Robocop tomorrow.
But public trust is central to a healthy justice system. As fantastical and provoking concepts about robotic police are, they need to be backed up with strong governance to ensure public buy-in. Why are they being used and not physical officers? What safeguards are in place for software failures? Who can citizens contact if there are problems? What are the benchmarks for the Singapore pilot, for example, to be deemed a success?
There’s the wonderful urban myth about NASA spending millions researching a pen that would write in space while the Soviets realised a pencil would work. As with most urban myths, there is an important message therein. Would the money spent developing robots be put to better use on building relationships between the police and citizens? Or putting measures in place to reduce anti-social behaviour?
I’ve written before about the need for smart cities to place citizens at the heart of their programmes. Justice is arguably second only to health in requiring public trust and high standards. Robots may appeal to the imaginative among us but as Ian Malcolm said, just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.
What I’m reading (and I hope you can forgive the indulgence of a Liverpool fan celebrating their first Premier League win in 30 years!)
Why Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool are on cusp of Premier League glory (Financial Times - some fascinating data analysis here)
Liverpool are using incredible data science during matches (Liverpool.com)