The Laws of Robotics created by Isaac Asimov determine that a robot cannot injure humans. That’s in fiction. In the “real world”, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), in the United States, proposes a policy that allows the use of robots as a lethal force. With that, the machines would have “permission to kill”🇧🇷
The SFPD project foresees that robots will only be used in situations where the risk of death is imminent, both for police officers and ordinary citizens. Another condition is that the robots only come into action when there is no less drastic force option.
The idea is not unique to the SFPD. O Verge says that in 2016, Dallas police equipped a bomb-disarming robot with an explosive to kill an individual who murdered five police officers. At the time, the Dallas police chief stated that he had no other option to stop the subject.
In general, proposals for the use of robots as a lethal force by the police emphasize that this method would only be used as a last resort, when all other resources prove insufficient for the situation.
On the other hand, the subject has raised a number of ethical and public safety issues. There is concern that, under the argument of protecting police officers, robots are used in ways that harm civil rights, for example.
Boston Dynamics is against
One of the movements that contradict or question the use of robots as a lethal force is promoted by companies in the sector. In October, the Boston Dynamics has teamed up with companies like Agility Robotics, ANYbotics and Open Robotics to criticize the idea:
We believe that adding weapons to remotely or autonomously operated robots that are widely available to the public and capable of reaching previously inaccessible places where people live and work creates new harm risks and serious ethical issues.
Boston Dynamics’ positioning is remarkable because the company is behind robots that can be adapted with some ease to carry weapons. It is the case of “robot dog” Spotcapable of exploring rough terrain, climbing stairs, among other actions.
According to TechCrunchthe letter published by Boston Dynamics and the other robotics companies may be a reaction to Ghost Robotics’ partnership with the US military.
Ghost Robotics also has a quadruped robot. Last year, images surfaced of this robot equipped with a weapon so intimidating that, next to him, Spot looks like a poodle.
The images caused so much controversy that, sought by the TechCrunch, Ghost Robotics has stated that it only supplies robots to the military, but is not responsible for what is done with them. “We are not going to dictate to our government customers how they should use the robots.”
San Francisco could set precedent
The subject has come back to light recently because of the proposal from the San Francisco Police. But this story began in an unusual way.
According to the newspaper Mission Location, that proposal includes a list of robots that the SFPD has. There are 17, 12 of which are in operation. They are mainly used for detection or disarming of explosives, training and simulations.
The list was created because of a California law that aims to make police activity more transparent. This includes defining what can be done with robots. The proposed definition contained an Asimov-style rule that prohibited the use of robots as a force against anyone.
But the instruction ended up being replaced by another that provides for the use of robots as lethal force when there is a risk to the lives of police officers or ordinary citizens.
Then the discussion on the matter resumed. Officials, civil rights advocates and lawyers fear that the SFPD proposal is the first step towards the disproportionate use of robots as a lethal force.
There are also concerns that the law will open up space for robots designed specifically as weapons, which would only exacerbate the situation.
“We are living in a dystopian future where we are debating whether police can use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury or judge,” says Tifanei Moyer of the San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
The draft proposal was unanimously approved last week. But there is still time for the idea to be dropped or discussed again. The full proposal will go through a San Francisco board of supervisors on the 29th.