The NYPD’s robot dog is once again stirring privacy concerns and cyberpunk prophesies of some New Yorkers, after the four-legged machine was spotted inside of a Manhattan public housing complex on Monday.
A video shared on Twitter shows the robot trotting out of a building on East 28th Street in front of two NYPD officers, then slowly descending the stairs as bystanders look on in shock. “I’ve never seen nothing like this before in my life,” one woman can be heard saying.
The remote-controlled bot was made by Boston Dynamics, a robotics company famous for its viral videos of machines dancing and running with human-like dexterity. (Versions of “Spot,” as the mechanical dog is known, can open doors, and are strong enough to help tow an 18-wheeler.)
Since October, the NYPD has dispatched the robot to a handful of crime scenes and hostage situations, raising fears of unwanted surveillance and questions about the department’s use of public dollars. The mobile dog, which comes equipped with automated sensors, lights, and cameras capable of collecting “limitless data,” is sold at a starting price of $74,000.
A spokesperson for the NYPD said the robot dog was on standby, but not used, during a domestic dispute at East 28th Street on Monday afternoon. After a man allegedly barricaded himself inside a room with a mother and her baby, officers showed up and convinced him to let them exit. The man was arrested for weapons possession, police said.
“Right now it seems to be a fancy toy in search of an actual use case,” Albert Fox Cahn, the founder of the advocacy group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), told Gothamist. “It’s really alarming to see them roll out these props from a bad Black Mirror episode without any real public safety justification.”
Over $70k for just one of these NYPD robotic dogs. Meanwhile, agencies across the city that deliver essential services and programs are facing cuts. #DefundThePolice
If this isn’t absolutely abhorrent to you…🤯 https://t.co/EnRUkBTX7e
— Tiffany Cabán (@tiffany_caban) April 13, 2021
The bot has also sparked fears about increasing police militarization, and the possibility that it could pave the way for even more concerning technology, such as weaponized drones, in the future. The Dallas police department previously used an explosive-packed robot to kill a gunman in 2016. Last month, City Councilmember Ben Kallos introduced legislation that would ban the NYPD from using “weaponized robots.”
In response to such concerns, the NYPD has countered that they have long used robots for hostage negotiations and bomb scares, and added that the mechanical dog is “being tested to evaluate its capabilities.”
But their defense has only irked reform advocates, who said the department should not be testing the advanced technology on residents without any sort of public outreach, particularly after last summer’s protests against unaccountable policing.
“The NYPD is turning New Yorkers into surveillance guinea pigs,” Cahn said. “We keep hearing the same rhetoric from Mayor de Blasio that he believes in community based policing, but I don’t see any community that’s calling for these creepy robots.”
Inquiries to the Mayor’s Office were not returned.