Science fiction has always been based on science fact, but the two have always been very distinct. As technology continues to become more advanced, the line between the two begins to become blurred. In turn, it becomes easy for people who have no intimate knowledge of how technologies like robots and AI work to become afraid that without human intervention, these devices will become like their science fiction counterparts on their own.
It was only last December that the New York Police Department began deploying a heavily modified Spot quadruped on missions in New York City. The department intended to use it in situations involving hazardous materials, bomb threats, and other situations where citizens’ or officers’ lives were at risk. The few times it did get called out were surveillance scenarios, such as checking out the inside of a house involved in a reported burglary before officers entered.
“This dog is going to save lives, protect people, and protect officers and that’s our goal,” NYPD Technical Assistance Response Unit Inspector Frank Digiacomo told WABC Eyewitness News at the time.
Unfortunately, the robot nicknamed Digidog didn’t get a chance to show its true worth. Only months after the NYPD began leasing it from Boston Dynamics, it returned it—not because it was damaged or malfunctioning, but because it is scary.
Led by US House of Representatives member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, people expressed their concerns over the robotic first responder’s potential to become like Metalhead from “the dystopic TV series ‘Black Mirror,’ reports the New York Post. The criticism arose in February after a video of officers deploying Digidog in a reported home invasion/hostage situation in the Bronx went viral.
Along with Representative Ocasio-Cortez, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told the NYPD to “rethink” how it used the robot. Instead of rethinking anything, the NYPD canceled its $94,000 contract with Boston Dynamics last week and returned the robot. The lease was good through August.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told the New York Times that Digidog became a “target” for activists fueling irrational arguments over racism and mass surveillance.
“People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil,” said the deputy commissioner.
Not only were activists expressing fear, but prominent city officials were as well. City Councilman Ben Kallos likened the robotic dog to Metalhead, adding that what New York needs is more “beat cops on the street, [instead of] trying to replace them with robots.” Similarly, Mayor de Blasio spokesman Bill Neidhardt called Digidog “creepy.”
“[I’m] glad it was put down,” stated Neidhardt. “It’s creepy, alienating, and sends the wrong message to New Yorkers.”
The NYPD only deployed Digidog on about six missions, all without causing any harm or incident to civilians, before it fell victim to the so-called “cancel culture mob.”