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RI POLITICS

Lawmaker calls for banning robot police dogs in Rhode Island

Citing uproar in New York City, Representative David Morales warns against using “dystopian technology” to police communities of color

People take pictures and videos of Boston Dynamics Robot Dog named "Spot" during a presentation on the last day of the Web Summit in Lisbon in November 2019.
People take pictures and videos of Boston Dynamics Robot Dog named "Spot" during a presentation on the last day of the Web Summit in Lisbon in November 2019.AFP/AFP via Getty Images

PROVIDENCE — A state legislator is calling for Rhode Island to prohibit the use of police robot dogs, saying he doesn’t want to see this “dystopian technology” unleashed on working-class communities of color.

Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, said he introduced a bill to bar police robot technology after hearing about the fierce backlash that New York City police received for using a robot dog, named Digidog, in public housing in Manhattan and in responding to a home invasion in the Bronx.

He noted that the Massachusetts State Police also have used a four-legged robot, named Spot, that was designed by Boston Dynamics, a Waltham-based company now owned by the Hyundai Motor Group. And he said robot dogs are used in Hawaii.

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“Rhode Island could be the next home for police robot dogs over the next two to three years if we do not act now,” Morales said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing this week. “We cannot and must not normalize the idea of equipping our police with untested robot technology that runs the risk of hurting people while further alienating our communities from their local law enforcement.”

No police departments in Rhode Island are now using robot police dogs, he said.

“This bill is a preventive measure to ensure that our state does not have to experience the fear and uncertainty of further police militarization fueled by public tax dollars as opposed to investments that can be better spent on community-based initiatives to actually help promote public safety,” Morales said.

Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat.
Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat.

He noted critics have drawn comparisons to the robot dogs depicted in the Netflix series “Black Mirror.” Creators of the “Metalhead” episode (warning: violence), which shows a woman fleeing a robot dog following the collapse of human society, drew inspiration from videos of the Boston Dynamics robot dog.

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Morales said robot dogs are four-legged, 70-pound, $90,000 machines equipped with cameras “and the capacity to cause bodily harm.”

A spokeswoman for Boston Dynamics said Spot’s starting price is $74,500, and it does not have the capacity to cause bodily harm.

“The robot is equipped with specific features, including obstacle avoidance, to avoid contact with surrounding objects and people,” the spokeswoman said. “Boston Dynamics forbids the use of our technology to harm people or animals, which is stated in our terms and conditions of sale. Spot is designed to remove people from hazardous or dangerous situations and, in the case of public public safety, to de-escalate dangerous situations.”

Morales warned about what could come next.

“The ACLU has been clear that an expansion of robot dogs would put us on a path to fully autonomous machines with the ability to independently make decisions, which then raises the concern of inaccuracies or implicit biases” from artificial intelligence, he said.

Such robots could “unintentionally or intentionally hurt marginalized communities based on their skin color, the neighborhoods they reside in, their age, or other factors that would essentially infringe on one’s civil rights,” he said.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union submitted testimony, saying that the rapid growth of technology often outpaces policy and legislative responses.

“Preemptively addressing the threat that newer technologies could have on communities — particularly those that are over-policed, such as BIPOC communities — is critical to ensure that any future or prospective deployment of these technologies is not done in a discriminatory manner,” the ACLU wrote. “Especially with the national upswell of support for significant reform to our policing practices, it is simply a matter of proactive and pragmatic policy to ensure that efforts toward equity are not negatively impacted by future discriminatory technologies.”

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Morales said former president Barack Obama placed limits on robot police dogs, but former president Donald J. Trump removed those restrictions, so now state legislation is needed.

The legislation is drawing some opposition.

Elizabeth M. Tanner, executive director of the state Department of Business Regulation, wrote that the state fire marshal’s investigation unit and the bomb technicians in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit use robots and drones, so the legislation as written would “risk the safety” of those unit members.

“The inability to utilize robotic technology would set the EOD Unit back 20 years, greatly increase the risk of harm or death to a bomb technician, and result in the likely loss of FBI accreditation,” Tanner wrote.

Representative David A. Bennett, a Warwick Democrat, voiced similar concerns, noting that robots can help keep law enforcement officers out of harm’s way. “If you have an active shooter and you can get in there with a robot that can take out that active shooter, I say use it,” he said.

Morales said he recognizes that the language of the bill is now “very broad” and he would be willing to amend it. He said his main concern is prohibiting robot police dogs, whether armed or unarmed, and weaponized drones.

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The issue seemed to take other legislators by surprise.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert E. Craven Sr., a North Kingstown Democrat, told Morales he needed to learn more about the topic, saying, “I didn’t know there were robot dogs.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.