If you grew up in a certain decade (namely, the 1980s), you were lucky, as this was the golden age of robots in pop culture. Whether they were funny, scary, or brave, there was a mechanical creature for everybody. And while they provided great entertainment, most of us probably never envisioned that one day they would be more than just fictional characters

Cut to 2020. That’s when the idea of using actual robots for lethal purposes entered the public’s consciousness. Most people, however, were not on board with “killer robots,” and a survey found that over 60 percent of respondents to a survey were against their use. But this didn’t stop projects from getting underway. 

Oakland’s robot plan

In 2021, the Oakland Police Department made news when it discussed using a percussion-actuated nonelectric disruptor (PAN) in certain circumstances. While typically used by bomb squads and the military, the PAN disruptor is a shotgun-shaped attachment affixed to a wheeled robot. While these are generally loaded with blanks or pressurized water, they can also use live rounds. 

When the police department was asked about live ammunition, they initially said they wouldn’t be using it. But then, lieutenant Omar Daza-Quiroz said this: “I don’t want to add a prohibited use because what if we need it for some situation later on?”

Daza-Quiroz’s comment set off a bit of a firestorm, with many people worried that it wouldn’t be long before these armed robots were patrolling neighborhoods. The Oakland PD finally said that the robots would only be used for “certain catastrophic, high-risk, high-threat, mass casualty events.” What those events are exactly, however, could be open to interpretation. For the time being, no live rounds will be allowed in the robots, though they will be able to use pepper spray.

The tip of the robot iceberg?

Oakland isn’t the only place where the idea of armed robots has been floated. After police used Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs in the Bronx in early 2022, a bill was introduced that would “prohibit the New York City Police Department (NYPD) from using or threatening to use robots armed with a weapon or to use robots in any manner that is substantially likely to cause death or serious physical injury.”

Though the robot dogs were not armed, many people think this is the next step police departments plan to take. And in fact, Dallas has already used one, employing a bomb robot to detonate a device to kill a suspect.

Right now, the cons seem to outweigh the pros

While there are some benefits of robot cops – including keeping officers out of harm’s way – there are quite a few negatives. First, while robots aren’t racist, the AI tech they use could be biased. Plus, when robots are being used as proxy cops, there could be a greater chance of excessive violence.

“Let’s say there’s a protest, and there aren’t any police on the scene,” said Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. Robots could unload “pepper spray, or tear gas, or rubber bullets, on the crowd…and they hit people who are not involved, or they do it when it’s not necessary.” 

Some people also think that police will go out of their way to use these robots. “Anytime anyone has a tool, they’re going to use it more,” said Jennifer Tu, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee and member of the Oakland Police Commission subcommittee on militarized policing. “You have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And the more that police, in general, have military equipment, have more weapons, those weapons get used.”

And, of course, like nearly any device these days, there’s the chance of one of these killer robots getting hacked. There are also political ramifications to consider. Said Liz O’Sullivan, CEO and a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control: “One can imagine applications of this particular tool that may seem reasonable, but with a very few modifications, or even just different kinds of ammunition, these tools can easily be weaponized against democratic dissent.”

It will probably be a while before we see any RoboCops on police forces. Where do you stand on this issue? Are you against arming robots, or do you see some merit in doing this? Let us know in the comments below.

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