It is no coincidence that two friends of mine have both founded companies recently to build telepresence robots. These are easy to drive remote control robots which have a camera and screen at head height. You can inhabit the robot, and drive it around a flat area and talk to people by videoconferencing. You can join meetings, go visit people or inspect a factory. Companies building these robots, initially at high prices, intend to sell them both to executives who want to remotely tour remote offices and to companies who want to give cheaper remote employees a more physical presence back at HQ.
There are also a few super-cheap telepresence robots, such as the Spykee, which runs Skype video conferencing and can be had for as low as $150. It’s not very good, and the camera is very low down, and there’s no screen, but it shows just how cheap such a product can get.
|“Anybots” QA telepresence robot|
When they get down to a price like that, it seems inevitable to me that we will see an emergency services robot on every block, primarily for use by the police. When there is a police, fire or ambulance call to an address, an officer could immediately connect to the robot on that block and drive it to the scene, to be telepresent. The robot would live in a small, powered protective closet either paid for by the city, but more likely just donated by some neighbour on the block who wants the fastest possible emergency response. Called into action, the robot’s garage door would open and the robot would drive out, and probably be at the location of the emergency within 60 to 120 seconds, depending on how densely they are placed. In the meantime actual first responders might also be on the way.
What could such a robot do?
Police can actually do a lot of their job just by talking to people, with no physical contact. The robot would be recording high definition video at all times (transmitting a fraction of that for remote control) and thus would be a good crime scene witness. And while it could not back them up with physical force, there would be a police officer on the screen able to give lawful police orders, including requiring that a suspect or witness wait for a physical officer. The robot, and the fact it is recording and transmitting, may scare away a perpetrator. People in domestic disputes could be talked to, and might step back knowing they are on police camera. Fights might break up. There will probably be one in every bar (though in a private space it would need an invitation, of course.)
The first responder would also be able to bring useful intelligence. What is gong on? How bad is the fire? A doctor, not just an EMT, might be switched in if there is a medical emergency that can be helped that way. This doctor could direct the EMTs who arrive later and provide a video message for the emergency room doctors. If you wanted to make the robot more expensive, it could also have one of those idiot-proof defibrillators in the base.
At least for now, the robot could only go on flat surfaces. It would not be able to open doors (though it might be able to push buttons that open doors and call elevators.) It could not climb steps. However, with the aid of a nearby person, it could be light enough — since it does not need too much range — to be carried up stairs.
Police would also like the idea that the first officer on the scene of a crime report would be in no danger, and could scope out the situation for the officers driving to the scene. Indeed, if a car with two officers is coming, it could be the non-driving officer who is driving the robot, or who takes it over after a 911 operator has started the journey.
Robots can also respond to much more mundane things that frankly don’t need a physically present person, like taking statements and minor assistance.
One barrier to this is reliable networking. Today’s telepresence robots use wifi, but this robot must use cellular high speed data. That can have problems when going inside, and can even run into dead spots on the street. Fortunately the robot can have advanced knowledge of the dead spots in its own local area, and can be tracking signal strength at all time to warn the operator not to drive into the dead spot. Ideally if a robot gets into a dead spot, it can be programmed to slowly backtrack its course to find signal again, or can start doing a searching pattern for signal.
In addition, the robot should be able to make use of local wireless LANs. This is not practical today. To allow this, it would require that our wifi access points support a protocol that allows guest use. There are already ones that do this (such as FON) but a protocol could be set up to allow a police robot to present a police certificate to allow it guest use. (The guest would not get access to the encryption keys of other users of the network or do anything but get to the outside, of course.) Police guest use could be confirmed with the police station, so that the code can not be used when there is not a local robot in operation.
With such a protocol, any dead spots could in fact be covered by wifi. Owners of houses, interested in getting emergency services from robots, would be keen to cover any dead spots near their house, as well as give the robot more bandwidth when it gets to their house. While one could just give the robot the wifi password, this is a bad idea for privacy reasons, due to the bad way in which wifi encryption currently works. A future protocol would do it better and use a different (hidden) SSID for the emergency robot, with its own access method and different encryption of the traffic.
In addition, lots of people are working hard to make high speed wireless networking ubiquitous in our urban areas, and the robots will be able to use that.
The cheap robots will not be able to go too far, and they will no doubt have trouble with things like snow.
It is not strictly necessary that the people be able to see the officer, though things work a lot better when they can. However, if bandwidth is limited this could be scaled back.
Yes, people might try to steal the robot or damage it once it gets out of its garage. The robot could be built with codes so it is hard to make use of it, except for parts, if stolen. And if you want to try to steal a police robot while it is transmitting video of you, that seems like a poor idea. However, there may be some areas where the robots are not cost effective, even if only costing a few hundred dollars.
I first thought of this as a robocar idea, in particular to give assistance to people anywhere. If robocar technology has reached the level where the police robot can move itself, this would allow the 911 dispatcher to send the robot immediately to the address that is phoning 911 without a human operator. Due to the e-911 automatic provision of address, simply calling 911 might cause a police robot to be on the way before the operator has even answered. This can be done even without robotic driving, but at the higher cost of having a bank of human robot operators standing by. These operators need not be local, though — they could be anywhere in the country. In fact, the emergency workers could be anywhere, though if you want to give legal police orders, an authorized officer would be needed.
The robots should pay for themselves in terms of superior emergency response and saved police time. With a target price of $500 with garage, it would not be hard for any block to gather together to money to pay for one on their block. It might not even be hard to gather the money for one with a defibrillator on any street with older people.
The military is of course building armed telepresence robots, and this brings up the question of whether a police robot could be armed, with something like a Taser if nothing else. I suspect this will happen in the more distant future, but at first it seems like mostly a way to make the robot much more expensive and much more subject to theft — even if it can see behind itself with a fish-eye lens. The risks seem to outweigh the benefits. If an armed officer is needed, one will be there in 5 minutes.
My initial thoughts on this were worries about the panopticon potential of this technology. Does this create a police state, with police on every corner? Compared to the alternative of cameras on every corner that we’re seeing in so many places, I think this is actually quite a bit better. Unlike the constant surveillance of those cameras, telepresence robots are not operating all the time, and are clearly visible when they are operating. It’s not secret surveillance but rather the ability for an actual live officer to teleport in for limited, non-physical activity.
In addition, we can and should have logs of when the police robots are used, and just as neighbours know when a police car comes through their street, they can know when a robot was deployed, and even see the reason. If there is a secret investigation, those logs should still be available on the street after the investigation is closed. While these robots need not have blaring sirens, they will not be so stealthy as for the police to believe they can stake out a house with one. While they would have infrared cameras to operate at night, they would also have lots of glowing LEDs.
Key to this is that telepresence does not put many more police on the street. It just changes how quickly they can move from place to place. The ability to have remote cops far away does perhaps put more cops on the street, but not that many, and not in a way that really scales.
That’s what matters. I spend a lot of time fighting efforts by the police to expand their powers using computer technology. But this is not just a fear of all police technology. If technology multiplies the ability of the police to do things like respond to emergencies, stop crimes and arrest perpetrators, that’s good. It’s when the technology multiplies the impact police have on innocent people that we must have concern. Digital technology might let the police do 10 times more general surveillance, and police like that because that helps them look for criminals, but it also means having 10 times as much surveillance of innocents.