300-pound crime-predicting mobile robot: Crime-preventing precog or 'R2D2's evil twin'?

In hopes of preventing another Sandy Hook, Knightscope embraced Minority Report and R2D2 concepts to develop a 300-pound crime-predicting mobile surveillance robot.

Imagine a five-foot-tall, 300-pound mobile robot, which has a striking resemblance to R2D2 and "can see, hear, feel and smell" as it predicts and prevents crime. But not everyone thinks the surveillance-machine on wheels is cute; in fact, Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, told The New York Times that the Knightscope K5 Autonomous Data Machine "is like R2D2's evil twin."

William Santana Li, a co-founder of the company Knightscope Inc., said, "We founded Knightscope after what happened at Sandy Hook. You are never going to have an armed officer in every school." Unlike a gun-toting cop, this robot would come with "precog" crime prediction capabilities. The company is not shying away from comparisons to Minority Report-flavored surveillance. Li stated, "We don't want to think about 'RoboCop' or 'Terminator,' we prefer to think of a mash-up of 'Batman,' 'Minority Report' and R2D2."

When explaining how the Knightscope K5 Autonomous Data Machine works, the company wrote that the robot "utilizes a combination of autonomous robots and predictive analytics to provide a commanding but friendly physical presence while gathering important real-time on-site data with numerous sensors."

Those sensor options, according to the Knightscope website, include:

  • Optical Character Recognition: Converts scanned images of alphanumeric text into machine-encoded text for comparison against a defined database or 'Hot List.'
  • Omnidirectional Imaging: 360-degree high-definition video capture.
  • Thermal Imaging: Used to detect and measure minute temperature differences.
  • Microphones: High-quality audio capture.
  • Air Quality: Monitors ambient air for a number of specified particulates.
  • Ultrasonic: Multiple detectors that measure speed and distances to surrounding objects.
  • Infrared: Uses the infrared light spectrum invisible to the human eye to provide video in low- or no-light conditions.
  • Radar: Detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction or speed of objects.
  • Lidar: Remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light - provides accurate 3D mapping of the environment and specific objects.

So the K5 collects GPS and the other sensor data and then processes it through a "predictive analytics engine, combined with existing business, government and crowdsourced social data sets," then assigns "an alert level that determines when the community and the authorities should be notified of a concern."

Knightscope further explained:

If an alert is pushed, the K5 machine will turn on all of its sensors to allow the entire community to review everything and also contribute important real-time information. Our approach alleviates any privacy concerns, engages the community on a social level to effectively crowdsource security, and provides an important feedback loop to the prediction engine.

In Li's vision of these robotic "heroes," the K5 security bots will patrol schools and communities like a "21st-century version of a neighborhood watch." The Times pointed out that K5 could take jobs from security guards, since "the all-seeing mobile robots will eventually be wirelessly connected to a centralized data server, where they will have access to 'big data,' making it possible to recognize faces, license plates and other suspicious anomalies."

If you find such privacy-invading capabilities appalling, you are not alone. Rotenberg told The Times, "There is a big difference between having a device like this one on your private property and in a public space. Once you enter public space and collect images and sound recordings, you have entered another realm. This is the kind of pervasive surveillance that has put people on edge."

Knightscope, however, believes that K5 can "cut crime by 50%" and people will be OK with such surveillance if the company makes the robot-collected data available to everyone via the internet. “As much as people worry about Big Brother, this is as much about putting the technology in the hands of the public to look back,” Li said. “Society and industry can work together on this issue.”

Preventing another Sandy Hook is an admirable goal, but pushing the precog robot into public spaces is yet another nightmare for privacy. I, for one, do not welcome the 'evil R2D2' surveillance overlord.

The K5 video below was produced for kids.

Images courtesy of Knightscope.

Like this? Here's more posts:

Follow me on Twitter @PrivacyFanatic

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

Microsoft's very bad year for security: A timeline