The inevitable rise of the robocops

Updated 7:04 AM EDT, Mon May 22, 2017
(CNN) —  

Picture: A bleak dystopian future in which humanity is ruled by robots, suppressed by its own creation. Not an original thought, admittedly. Pop culture is filled with examples of robot overlords and android uprisings; of artificial intelligence gone bad.

But so far, few – if any – of these dystopias begin with mall cops.

Dubai Police is about to test these waters in the mildest way possible when it introduces the first of a fleet of robots into its ranks on May 24. Skynet this is not, but with Dubai planning to recruit enough robots to make up 25% of its police force by 2030, it does throw up plenty of questions.

Is this a novelty, a PR stunt, or a small step, a slow creep, towards a RoboCop future? As robot intelligence increases and a Russian android learns to shoot guns, the answer is less straightforward than you might think.

The lone ranger

Writer Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a fictional creation with real-world value:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These 75-year-old laws provide an outline for benign creations, designed for our benefit. They’re also to protect us from any potential harm.

"I, Robot" (2004), based on a selection of sci-fi shorts by author Isaac Asimov, explores the Three Laws of Robotics.
Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB
"I, Robot" (2004), based on a selection of sci-fi shorts by author Isaac Asimov, explores the Three Laws of Robotics.

But what if a robot’s actions put someone in prison? Does this violate either the First or Second Law, or uphold them? Can a robot do this safely? Should robots – could robots – delve into the nuances of criminal law and one day replace the role of humans as arbiters?

This is the ethical debate stirred up by Dubai Police’s plans for robot officers.

Its first step is the Dubai Police Robot, a single unit entering service this week. An adapted REEM humanoid robot, citizens can report crimes to it and kick-start real-life human investigations. But while it may not be able to arrest people – or chase down suspects for that matter – Dubai Police is working towards one that can.

Designed by PAL Robotics of Spain, REEM was first unveiled in 2011. Weighing 220 pounds and 5 feet 6 inches high, the two armed, wheel-based service robot can speak nine languages out of the box and is highly customizable, say its creators.

REEM, designed by PAL-Robotics of Spain.

“The robot is going to be an interactive service for the people,” says Brigadier Khalid Nasser Alrazooqi, general director of the Smart Services Department at Dubai Police and the man responsible for the police robot project.

Citizens can ask the robot questions, pay fines and access a variety of police information via purpose-built software. Its facial recognition technology is only 80% accurate, says Alrzooqi, but the robot’s camera eyes will send live feeds to a command control center for analysis.

courtesy Dubai Police Smart Services Department

After a review period, many more Dubai Police Robots will soon be rolled out. (PAL Robotics declined to share the number of units ordered.)

“In the first phase it’s going to be available (at) all tourist attractions (and) shopping malls in the city,” the brigadier says, adding that further units will soon act as receptionists in police stations.

But this model is only the beginning for Dubai Police.

More human than human?

The next stage, already in research and development says Alrazooqi, is to create a “fully-functional robot that can work as (a) normal police officer.” He declined to name the companies involved on record.