Robot Troopers

I wrote recently about our conflicted relationship with robots. In some ways, robots are becoming seen as the hammer that could be used to drive a wide range of situational nails. Just look at the explosion of interest (no pun intended) around drones as the hot new platform for security/safety/surveillance/socializing/etc. For all the enthusiasm, it’s a smaller group that asks, “is this right tool for this situation?” Increasingly, robots are just rolled right in with only cursory consideration of appropriateness—see the drone usage creep in domestic law enforcement as evidence.  

I’m thinking about this because of an incident that occurred several days ago very near me, where an obviously disturbed local resident started his day naked in front of his house, brandishing and firing a rifle (needless to say, not a typical day around here). After responding to the incident, police deployed a tactical robot through which to negotiate with the man who was, according to bystanders, trying to “speak to God.” According to news reports, the robot ran out of battery power halfway through the standoff and had to be replaced by a loaner unit from a nearby department.  

While tactical robots are potentially lifesaving technology for officers, they can still be a blunt instrument in a psychologically delicate situation such as this. One imagines a future where such robots further disintermediate an already disconnected relationship between, say, rioters and police, or mental patients and guards. That the unit ran out of power part way through negotiations shows how far we have to go to be able to replace human interaction with a mechanical enforcer.