Originally printed in the Batesville Daily Guard
When Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on police in Dallas after what had been a peaceful protest, killing five officers, he created a night that would live in infamy for many years to come. Aside from his planned assassination of police officers and intent to further widen his terrorist activity, it’s the method of how he was killed that will probably have the longest-lasting impact.
As most people know, Johnson was killed by a bomb delivered to him by a remote-controlled robot.
This is the first time in American history that a robot has been used to kill a person on U.S. soil. It sets a precedent and will probably serve as the go-to case when it comes to using robots to kill in the future.
Sure, robots have been used for years by police forces, mostly for diffusing or removing bombs without putting human lives at risk. They’ve also been used, like drones, for surveillance of suspects.
The use of a robot to kill someone, though, has many people truly frightened.
“Agents of the state decided to kill a suspect on the scene without a trial and at a distance when perhaps other options were available,” says Sean Illing, Salon staff writer and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “A death-dealing robot is a weapon of war, not law enforcement.”
There is some truth to that. The robot used by Dallas Police, believed to be a MARCbot, has been already been used in Iraq to achieve similar goals. In Iraq, jury-rigged MARCbots were used to deliver Claymore anti-personnel mines into potential ambushes.
Of course, blowing up said robot costs thousands of dollars. A price that the military can absorb with little issue. Your typical police station not-so-much, which means that they would probably only be used in such a fashion when the need calls for it.
Cost aside though, is this something we should be afraid of? Will it kick off an era where the police and the military are nearly indistinguishable?
I don’t think so.
Think about it: Robotic and drone technology is taking off. It was recently reported that Rolls Royce is planning to have its entire cargo fleet operated by drone technology by 2020. Jaguar is creating a fleet of 100 semi-autonomous Land Rovers over the next four years for experimental purposes. In the coming years, we can probably expect news of more transporters getting on board with that, eventually making most of the shipping in the developed world done by drones.
Moving forward with this technology, there’s many opportunities to apply robotic and drone to officer safety and in turn, public safety.
Imagine in the near future, that instead of a police officer coming to your window during a traffic stop, you are greeted by a hovering drone. The drone, which would likely be deployed from where the officer’s trunk space is now, would likely be capable of either scanning your license, insurance and registration or simply carrying the documents back to the officer.
On its face, some people might dismiss that as a waste. Why buy expensive drones when a human being can do the job?
Why? Because traffic stops are often the most dangerous situations for both police and civilians. Setting aside all the accident-related fatalities from traffic stops, like police being hit by cars, more police were killed intentionally during traffic stops than any other situation in 2015.
Not only is the officer putting themselves in danger by going into what is often an unknown situation, but the civilian is also at risk, as we have unfortunately found in past cases. Some people who don’t know better get out of their car and approach the officer, others can make a movement that can be misinterpreted, especially in an already tense situation.
Applying robotic and drone technology to this situation can save lives. Eliminating those moments when an officer enters a situation blind also reduces the chances an officer, or civilian, will be killed in them.
This is just one of the many potential ways robotic and drone technology could be used to save lives. But whatever the application, it’s about keeping one side out of harm’s way.
Similarly to the delivery of a bomb in Dallas, a drone could probably be adapted to non-lethal means of neutralizing potentially bad situations. Whether it be stunning suspects with Tasers or deploying tear gas in riot or hostage situations, robots and drones are highly adaptable depending on the need.
But of course, like Dallas, the technology could be adapted to kill. When there’s an active shooter, a drone of some sort, armed with a gun, could be used to take out the perpetrator without officers getting into the line of fire. While this is troublesome for many people, we got to remember that we’re often talking about people who have the intent of killing as many people as possible.
But all of this is probably quite a few years away. Between now and then, will be the time it’s developed and the discussion of the moral and legal issues are discussed.
For now, robots and drones are already a part of policing in the U.S. They are mainly used for surveillance and searches. Unlike a human, a drone can be deployed into the air within minutes and get closer to the subjects. Whether it be accidents or suspects on the lose, a drone just allows the authorities to get a closer look with relatively little risk to themselves. Since they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, not to mention some can hover, they’re excellent tools for observation.
And don’t forget, robots have been serving for years when it comes to not only surveillance, but protecting people from bombs as well.
It all may violate Isaac Aasimov’s rules of robotics, but reality is not as morally cut-and-dry like fiction. If you look at it from my perspective, the use of robots in war and policing have probably kept more people from dying than if they weren’t available. Its continued use will probably continue cut the human toll in unfortunate conflicts in decades to come, whether it be through law enforcement or the military.