New “robot policemen” patrolling the streets of Singapore are designed to make people feel safe, but in some cases they’re having the opposite effect.
The autonomous robots – names “Xavier” – are equipped with seven cameras that enable them to detect “undesirable social behaviour” such as people chaining bikes up where they shouldn’t, or groups gathering in defiance of Singapore’s strict anti-coronavirus social distancing rules.
For example, when a small crowd gathered to watch a chess match between two elderly players Xavier rolled up to break it up.
The robot instructed them to “please keep one-metre distancing, please keep to five persons per group,” as it scanned them with one of its seven cameras.
Local Frannie Teo really isn’t sure Xavier is a good thing: ”It reminds me of Robocop,” she said.
“It brings to mind a dystopian world of robots… I’m just a bit hesitant about that kind of concept”.
Lee Yi Ting, a digital rights activist who campaigns against Singapore’s growing surveillance estate, agrees:”It all contributes to the sense people… need to watch what they say and what they do in Singapore to a far greater extent than they would in other countries,” she said.
“It’s dystopian because of the extent to which we are visibly surveilled. But I think that what’s more dystopian for me is that it is normalised and that people are not responding much to this at all”.
There are around 90,000 police cameras on the island, which is about half the size of London, and the authorities are planning to introduce new facial recognition systems to keep a track of the country’s five and a half million inhabitants.
But the government says more automation is required because Singapore’s population is ageing, and there aren’t enough young people around to maintain a conventional police force.
Lily Ling, from the Singapore Food Agency, said that Xavier would help them crack down on illegal street traders:”The deployment of ground robots will help to augment our surveillance and enforcement resources.
“For instance, she said, “the surveillance of illegal hawkers can be manpower intensive as officers need to be deployed at various areas across the island. The adoption of robotics technology can be used to enhance such operations, and reduce the need for our officers to do physical patrols.”
According to an official government press release Xavier is given a patrol route in advance but then operates autonomously: “Xavier is fitted with different types of sensors, including safety features, to enable it to navigate autonomously, and avoid stationary and dynamic obstacles such as pedestrians and vehicles along its patrol route configured in advance by public officers.”
“Deploying Xavier will augment the ground operations of public officers,” they explain, because officers in a central control room will be able to be able to monitor and control multiple robots simultaneously.