I went on patrol with AI police robot that will become the future of policing – if boffins can fix a significant problem
- Published: 21:20, 5 May 2023
- Updated: 0:00, 6 May 2023
BUMBLING along like a chrome wheelie bin, 5ft-nothing robot K5 seems more like Star Wars’ R2-D2 than RoboCop.
But looks can deceive.
For this AI-driven droid is now taking the good fight to crooks on the crime-plagued streets of America.
The Dalek-like robot has solved burglaries, helped catch a hit-and-run suspect and even aided the capture of a sex predator.
William Santana Li, chairman and CEO of K5’s maker, US firm Knight-scope, told The Sun: “A lot of people are worried about AI. They say the robots are coming and they’re going to take everyone’s jobs.
“You know what I worry about? I worry about humans. Crime has a $2trillion negative impact on the US every year. A violent crime takes place every 26 seconds, a property crime every four seconds. Robots and AI have nothing to do with that.”
Cheaper than human cops and security guards and able to put in longer shifts, the K5 is already aiding law enforcement and patrolling car parks, shopping malls, parks and casinos across America.
Its forebears, or bots, include robotic digi-dogs used on police beats in Hawaii to help with search missions.
They each cost about £45,000 to build but can be leased for as little as 60p an hour.
The K5 has overcome teething issues including toppling into a city-centre water fountain while on its rounds, and another colliding with a shocked toddler in a shopping mall.
The New York Police Department is the latest law enforcement agency to enlist K5, and experts predict similar robots will soon be a regular sight on patrol in British town centres.
K5s navigate like self-driving cars and bristle with high-tech sensory kit that can process facial-recognition checks, read 300 number plates a minute and detect the pings of mobile phones.
They possess high-definition infrared cameras as well as microphones that pick up sounds such as breaking glass, and can send their own voice messages.
CEO William said: “An officer can speak through the machine as if it’s a mobile PA system, so it can make announcements like, ‘You’re trespassing!’ ”
Such is these dutiful droids’ popularity that many passers-by snap selfies with them, while some K5s have even been seen with lip-stick kisses on their bodywork.
But the un-armed bots’ skill at crime-busting has also seen some of them attacked by vengeful yobs.
When a drunken 41-year-old man attacked one of them that was patrolling a car park in California’s Silicon Valley in 2017, the robot reported the crime itself.
The man upended the K5 — which gives out an alarm call — and was arrested for “prowling and public intoxication”.
The machine suffered just scratch marks and was soon back on the beat.
But William says six people have spent time behind bars for launching violent attacks on the machines.
Knightscope’s bots carry neither gun nor Taser.
But in November, San Francisco’s lawmakers — the Board of Supervisors — voted to let cops use robots that can kill.
A police spokesman said: “Robots could potentially be equipped with explosive charges to breach fortified structures containing violent, armed or dangerous subjects.”
Lethal droids are already deployed in other parts of the US.
In 2016, cops in Dallas, Texas, sent in a Remotec Androx Mark V A-1 bot armed with explosives to kill a sniper who had shot dead five officers.
Yet San Francisco’s decision was reversed in December after an outcry.
Dr Catherine Connolly, from US-based pressure group Stop Killer Robots, had called the plans a “slippery slope”.
She said it would “make humans more and more distant from the use of force and the consequences of use of force”.
Knightscope chief William will not be arming robots, calling the move “a bright red line for us”.
He added: “If you’re trying to build trust in society, the last thing you need to be doing is shooting.”
Meanwhile the NYPD will use K5s to patrol the Times Square subway station’s concourse, initially accompanied by human partners.
New York City mayor Eric Adams has also secured the services of three digi-dogs for search-and-rescue duties.
Last week a mechanical mutt called Spot was deployed by New York firefighters to search the rubble of a collapsed Manhattan garage for survivors after one person died and five others were injured in the destruction.
Firefighters used the machine’s thermal camera to confirm no one was still trapped.
Painted white with black spots, the £68,000 bot built by US firm Boston Dynamics did come a cropper as it fell on to its side while trying to climb up a slab of concrete.
But Mayor Adams said at the scene: “Thank God we had the robotic dog to go in.”
K5s have not been a universally welcomed addition to New York’s crimefighting ranks, though.
Albert Fox Cahn, of the Surveil-lance Technology Oversight Project, said: “The NYPD is turning bad science fiction into terrible policing.
“New York deserves real safety, not a knock-off RoboCop.”
The idea for the autonomous security robots (ASRs) was born in the US after the shooting of 26 people — including 20 children — at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Knightscope vice-president Stacy Dean Stephens established that if cops had reached the scene just 60 seconds earlier, at least 12 lives could have been saved.
But the former Dallas cop said the K5 was built with a slightly comic look to put the public at ease.
He said: “We could have gone two ways, friendly or ominous. But you don’t want to scare everyone and make them not like the tech. You want it to be comforting.
“Like a police officer, you want to walk a fine line between having a commanding presence and not scaring a grandma.”
K5 has had its problems, though.
In July 2017, one fell into a water fountain at an office complex in Washington DC, after apparently failing to negotiate steps there.
A worker tweeted: “Our DC office building got a security robot.
“It drowned itself. We were promised flying cars, and instead we got suicidal robots.”
The summer before, a K5 on patrol at Stanford Shopping Center in Silicon Valley bumped into 16-month-old Harwin Cheng and knocked him to the ground.
It was then accused by one news outlet of “coldly driving away”, while the child suffered bruising to his leg and head.
Harwin’s mum Tiffany Teng said at the time: “The robot hit my son’s head and he fell face down on the floor. The robot did not stop and kept moving. Harwin was crying like crazy and he seldom cries.”
Knightscope described it as a “freakish accident” and pledged to make improvements.
As we watched a K5 keep watch on Knightscope’s HQ car park in Silicon Valley, William said: “We had a couple of minor incidents half a decade ago. It’s going to happen. “You can’t build this technology in a laboratory. You have to test it in the real world.”
Of the K5’s potential, he added: “In the US there are about 1.5million law enforcement profess-ionals and a million security guards. You need four humans to do 24/7 shifts.
“If machines can work 24/7 and be the eyes, ears and voice for the guards then you have a chance to make a massive difference in crimefighting.”
Asked about humans losing their jobs to the bots, he said: “There’s not enough officers and guards to actually do the job and there’s massive turnover.
“Why not promote security guards? Give them robots to work with which will allow the humans to do their job more effectively.
“You need machines to do the monotonous, computational heavy work that no human can do and let the humans do the decision-making and enforcement.”
Knightscope’s K5 is unavailable for lease in the UK but William is convinced companies will soon market security robots widely in Britain.
San Francisco already has robot baristas serving coffee at its international airport, driverless robo-taxis and a droid dishing out meals at a retirement home.
William added: “The robots aren’t coming to kill you. They’re already here and they’re making a massive, positive impact on society.”