Don’t Let Police Arm Autonomous or Remote-Controlled Robots and Drones

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by Matthew Guariglia, Activist Post:

It’s no longer science fiction or unreasonable paranoia. Now, it needs to be said: No, police must not be arming land-based robots or aerial drones. That’s true whether these mobile devices are remote controlled by a person or autonomously controlled by artificial intelligence, and whether the weapons are maximally lethal (like bullets) or less lethal (like tear gas).

Police currently deploy many different kinds of moving and task-performing technologies. These include flying drones, remote control bomb-defusing robots, and autonomous patrol robots. While these different devices serve different functions and operate differently, none of them–absolutely none of them–should be armed with any kind of weapon.

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Mission creep is very real. Time and time again, technologies given to police to use only in the most extreme circumstances make their way onto streets during protests or to respond to petty crime. For example, cell site simulators (often called “Stingrays”) were developed for use in foreign battlefields, brought home in the name of fighting “terrorism,” then used by law enforcement to catch immigrants and a man who stole $57 worth of food. Likewise, police have targeted BLM protesters with face surveillance and Amazon Ring doorbell cameras.

Today, scientists are developing an AI-enhanced autonomous drone, designed to find people during natural disasters by locating their screams. How long until police use this technology to find protesters shouting chants? What if these autonomous drones were armed? We need a clear red line now: no armed police drones, period.

The Threat is Real

There are already law enforcement robots and drones of all shapes, sizes, and levels of autonomy patrolling the United States as we speak. From autonomous Knightscope robots prowling for “suspicious behavior” and collecting images of license plates and phone identifying information, to Boston Dynamic robotic dogs accompanying police on calls in New York or checking the temperature of unhoused people in Honolulu, to predator surveillance drones flying over BLM protests in Minneapolis.

We are moving quickly towards arming such robots and letting autonomous artificial intelligence determine whether or not to pull the trigger.

According to a Wired report earlier this year, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2020 hosted a test of autonomous robots to see how quickly they could react in a combat simulation and how much human guidance they would need. News of this test comes only weeks after the federal government’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence recommended the United States not sign international agreements banning autonomous weapons. “It is neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States,” asserts the report, “to pursue a global prohibition of AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems.”

In 2020, the Turkish military deployed Kargu, a fully autonomous armed drone, to hunt down and attack Libyan battlefield adversaries. Autonomous armed drones have also been deployed (though not necessarily used to attack people) by the Turkish military in Syria, and by the Azerbaijani military in Armenia. While we have yet to see autonomous armed robots or drones deployed in a domestic law enforcement context, wartime tools used abroad often find their way home.

The U.S. government has become increasingly reliant on armed drones abroad. Many police departments seem to purchase every expensive new toy that hits the market. The Dallas police have already killed someone by strapping a bomb to a remote-controlled bomb-disarming robot.

So activists, politicians, and technologists need to step in now, before it is too late. We cannot allow a time lag between the development of this technology and the creation of policies to let police buy, deploy, or use armed robots. Rather, we must ban police from arming robots, whether in the air or on the ground, whether automated or remotely-controlled, whether lethal or less lethal, and in any other yet unimagined configuration.

No Autonomous Armed Police Robots

Whether they’re armed with a taser, a gun, or pepper spray, autonomous robots would make split-second decisions about taking a life, or inflicting serious injury, based on a set of computer programs.

But police technologies malfunction all the time. For example, false positives are frequently generated by face recognition technologyaudio gunshot detection, and automatic license plate readers. When this happens, the technology deploys armed police to a situation where they may not be needed, often leading to wrongful arrests and excessive force, especially against people of color erroneously identified as criminal suspects. If the malfunctioning police technology were armed and autonomous, that would create a far more dangerous situation for innocent civilians.

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