Last year the New York City Police Department (NYPD) began leasing a canine-like robot—a Spot model from Boston Dynamics that the department nicknamed Digidog. Officers deployed the robot in just a few cases, including a hostage situation in the Bronx and an incident at a public housing building in Manhattan. As word spread (along with photographs and videos), a backlash from the public—and eventually elected officials—quickly gained momentum. Some objected to the robot’s expense. Others worried that its use threatened civil liberties. Many simply found it creepy.
The NYPD abruptly terminated its lease and quit using the robot last month. Other U.S. police departments have been testing their own Spot models, however. “Spot has been particularly resourceful in tackling dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks,” the Boston Dynamics spokesperson told Scientific American. “Public safety initiatives, including police departments, often face dangerous work, such as inspecting a bomb, rummaging through remnants of an explosion or fire, or even de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation.”
Complex social and historical factors influenced the NYPD's decision to pull Digidog from duty. “This is just not a very good time for [the NYPD] to have tried this,” says David J. Gunkel, a professor of communication at Northern Illinois University. He notes the department made the move “at a time that we are, as a public, beginning to question what police are doing, how they’re being funded and what those monies are being used for.” Scientific American spoke with Gunkel about why people accept some machines while rejecting others—and whether the public can ever fully accept the idea of robotic cops.