It’s another step closer to the story line from James Cameron’s Terminator movies, but one that’s being seriously considered by police in Oakland. They believe that the society we now live in justifies taking a bold step forward in weaponizing robots.
Oakland Police have added a “Percussion Actuated Nonelectric Disruptor (PAN Disruptor) as a top priority for 2022. A PAN is a laser-aimed shotgun-like attachment for wheeled robots which until now have previously been used in war zones or for sending in to diffuse or detonate a bomb. These robots are not autonomous. Similar robots have been weaponized by the US military with machine guns, although the military say they are for shooting suspected explosive devices. The gun can be loaded with blanks as well as live rounds making them potentially lethal.
“One can imagine applications of this particular tool that may seem reasonable,” said Liz O’Sullivan, CEO of the AI bias-auditing startup Parity and a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, “but with a very few modifications, or even just different kinds of ammunition, these tools can easily be weaponized against democratic dissent.”
Oakland Police Department had originally promised to only use the killing machines when deemed necessary, during “certain catastrophic, high-risk, high-threat, or mass casualty events.” However, they would not rule out the potential to use live ammunition “if they need it for some situation later on.”
A 2021 subcommittee meeting looked at the potential for arming robots, and agreed the robots could not be used to kill humans, but would allowed them to be armed with pepper spray.
“We will not be arming robots with lethal rounds anytime soon,” Lieutenant Omar Daza-Quiroz told the Intercept. “If and when that time comes each event will be assessed prior to such deployment.”
Incredibly this isn’t the only police department that is considering upgrading their staff. In 2016 Dallas Police Department used a wheeled robot to take down an alleged cop-killing sniper. The robot placed a bomb near the suspect who was cornered in a parking garage. Allegedly the suspect said he’d placed explosives around the city. “After a prolonged shootout we saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on it for it to detonate where the suspect was. Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger,” explained Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown.
Also, in 2014 Albuquerque police deployed a bomb robot to release tear gas on an armed suspect.
In a similar way, North Dakota has legalized the use of police drones equipped with tasers and pepper spray. It seems like Oakland Police is merely following a trend to weaponize robots, which hopefully will continue to remain in the control of a human operator.
Reassured yet? Whilst the use of a robot in dangerous situations will undoubtedly save the lives of police and emergency responders, arming a robot could be a step too far.