Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Dallas Bombot: Killer Robot Or Not?

Was the device used by Dallas police to kill Micah Johnson a killer robot?

When Dallas police chief David Brown announced last week that Micah Johnson was killed by a robot with a bomb, it raised a lot of questions that we've been trying to answer.
What kind of robot was it?
Has it been used this way before?
And, Is this use ethical?

Well new information today is filling in some of the blanks.

Lauren Silverman of member station KERA has more:

"After hours of negotiating with Micah Johnson while he was holed up in the parking garage of El Centro Community College, Dallas police chief David Brown said "Enough."

"I knew that at least two had been killed, and we knew through negotiation this was the suspect because he was asking us how many did he get, and he was telling us how many more he wanted  to kill."

Brown asked his team to come up with an idea. So they attached a pound of C4 explosive to their bomb disposal robot, and detonated it within a few feet of where Johnson was hiding.

"This [wasn't an] ethical dilemma for me. I'd do it again to save our officers' lives."

The heavy duty, mostly metal robot is about the size of a lawn mower, with hefty treaded wheels, cameras, and a large extendable arm.

It's made by Northrup Grumann subsidiary, Remotec.
To understand this robot, it helps to know some basics.
Howard Chizeck, an engineer at the University of Washington, says there are three types of robots.
First, the industrial ones, you might see on an assembly line, maybe putting together a car.

"They basically are tools that do exactly what they are told to do."

Then there are autonomous robots; these are the ones that tend to get the most attention, at least in Hollywood: think Robocop or Terminator.

Finally, Chizeck says, there are telerobots.  That's what the Dallas police used.

"Things like bomb defusing robots or drones, search and rescue robots, where there's a human in the loop."

These are all over the place. Think of drones flying over Pakistan

Tim Dees is a former police officer and tech writer for policeone.com. He says telerobots are a common tool among large law enforcement agencies, like the Swiss army knife of robots

"I've seen 'em with shotguns with water cannons, with uhh arms that... articulate enough to open a package, so... they're used for all sorts of things. "

Dess says bomb disposal units do routinely carry explosives with them.

"Unlike on TV, where ah you have some sweaty guy trying to decide whether to cut the red wire or the green wire, the more common way is to, what the bomb guys will call, "render it safe", which usually means blowing it up right where it is."

Arming a robot with an explosive to blow up a person, as was the case in Dallas, that was a first. Still according to Michael Horowitz, that doesn't make the device a killer robot, exactly.

"A killer robot would be something that was more autonomous, that was actually programmed, and could do things on it's own, without human supervision."

Horowitz is a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He says some people wonder whether this type of remote technology might make police more likely to use lethal force, since they're not directly in danger.

Another question has to do with security. Engineer Howard Chizeck says there's a risk that the robot could be hacked: "If somebody disrupts that information stream, right, they could potentially take over and command that remote  robot or just make it not work."

Chizeck says hacking probably isn't something we need to worry about, unless police start using remotely controlled robots more often.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman, in Dallas.