HP RoboCop Shows How Far We Still Have to Go Before AI Could Really Protect Us

This (HP) RoboCop has nothing in common with the iconic robot cop from the ‘80s series, except for the name. It has neither the abilities nor the equipment of the real RoboCop, but most importantly, it really doesn’t seem to care about the citizens it’s meant to protect.
Autonomous robot used by Huntington Park Police Department, California 8 photos
Photo: Twitter / HP RoboCop
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That is, assuming it could care.

HP RoboCop stands for Huntington Park RoboCop, the first robotic police “officer” in Huntington Park, California. The PD introduced it in June 2019, saying it would patrol the local park and act as a deterrent to crime. In the same statement, the PD also spoke highly of how high-performance HP RoboCop was, vaguely mentioning technical abilities that would also be used to fight crime and keep the good citizens paying for it.

Those features include an emergency alert button, 2-way intercom, the ability to read about 1,200 car license plates a minute, 360-degree high-definition live video stream and the ability to track cell phone use in the vicinity. They’re stated clearly by the company making the robot, a Silicone Valley robotics company called Knightscope, which makes outdoor autonomous robots and has dozens of them in use across the U.S., especially in parking lots, malls and at airports. HP RoboCop is among the first to be used by the police.

In reality though, HP RoboCop is a glorified surveillance system that rolls around to its own intergalactic tune. It sounds silly, but it’s the truth. None of the features advertised are in use, as one woman found out in the first serious incident to occur since it was deployed in the park: in October 2019, she witnessed an altercation taking place and approached the egg-shaped, “POLICE” branded robot to call for help. As would any other person in her situation.

She pressed the emergency alert button and was invited to “move out of the way,” so the robot could continue rolling down on its pre-programmed route, humming to itself. Discussing the incident, which resulted in one woman getting beat up, Cosme Lozano, chief of police of Huntington Park, told NBC News that the robot wasn’t yet fully operational, though they didn’t disclose that when they introduced it: for $60 or 70K a year, the PD could only use it as a mobile surveillance video system. And they didn’t even have access to the recorded footage, as it was sent directly to Knightscope – as were the calls made by pushing the emergency alert button.

HP RoboCop, or K5 as Knightscope calls it (they would rather not use the name RoboCop because it creates false expectations in the people interacting with it), may be very smart but it’s not even close to how it should be. After the incident, Knightscope was quick to point out that their robot was designed as a deterrent to crime through its very presence, which was why they avoided the name assigned to it by the police.

Hearing that a robot is called RoboCop brings to people’s minds the idea that it could somehow help them fight off an attacker or effectively stop crime, and K5 wasn’t made for that. Notice that they’re not saying anything about how it was made for calling 911 but didn’t, because that feature wasn’t enabled.

That said, people do have high expectations of robots, especially those marketed as autonomous and highly capable, as was the case with K5. Put a “Police” decal on it, and the movie-version RoboCop chasing bad guys and shooting them up might actually spring to mind.

In reality, what we get is an egg-shaped machine that whirls around humming, occasionally urging citizens to “please keep the park clean,” fitted with several high-definition cameras that offer a 360-degree perspective. It’s cute, but it’s hardly the AI police aide the PD made it into when they announced it in June. And its first actual brush with real crime shows just how far we still have to go to truly rely on robots to help us fight crime.

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About the author: Elena Gorgan
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Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
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