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'Creepy' Robot Dog Loses Job With New York Police Department

NYPD canceled its contract with Boston Dynamics last week after its test run of the company's Spot robot sparked concerns of misuse of city funds and potential police abuse.
NYPD canceled its contract with Boston Dynamics last week after its test run of the company's Spot robot sparked concerns of misuse of city funds and potential police abuse.

After a public outcry, a robotic dog once hailed by the New York Police Department a high-tech crime-fighting sidekick is getting sent back to its owner.

The police canceled a $94,000 contract with the robot's maker Boston Dynamics following a backlash tied to calls to cut the police budget and concerns of police militarization and abuses of force.

The department introduced the public to the "Digidog" in December after acquiring the device in a test program.

"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 said in an interview with the local ABC station.

The purpose of the Boston Dynamics "Spot" robot, an agile 70-pound hound able to climb stairs and survey hazardous areas, was to help officers better identify dangers at crime scenes and keep officers safe.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is "glad the Digidog was put down," a spokesperson told ABC7. "It's creepy, alienating, and sends the wrong message to New Yorkers."

Critics have likened the machines to the robotic dogs featured in the TV series Black Mirror. In fact, the dystopian show's creators drew inspiration from Boston Robotics videos in depicting a nightmarish military state for the 2017 episode "Metalhead."

In February, a viral video of the futuristic dog — seen patrolling a Bronx neighborhood after officers responded to a hostage situation — sparked controversy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who then called it a "robotic surveillance ground drone," praised activists in her district who pushed back on the tech to demand that police funds should instead go toward investments like school counseling.

"When was the last time you saw next-generation, world class technology for education, healthcare, housing, etc consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?" she tweeted.

John Miller, NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, defended the department's use of the robot in an interview with The New York Times this week. The Digidog keeps officers out of harm's way, he said, and it's cheaper and more advanced than the robots the force has used in the past.

Miller said that the department had previously sought to test the device until its contract was up this August. But plans changed, he said, after the robotic dog became a "target" in arguments over race and surveillance.

The Times reported that the lease was cut short last week: "In response to a subpoena from City Councilman Ben Kallos and Council Speaker Corey Johnson requesting records related to the device, police officials said that a contract worth roughly $94,000 to lease the robotic dog from its maker, Boston Dynamics, had been terminated on April 22."

As Wired reported last month, Kallos has proposed a bill to ban the NYPD from using "weaponized" robots. That legislation would not prevent the deployment of devices like the Boston Dynamics Spot, which the company said buyers must agree to not use as a weapon.

Law enforcement has used armed robots before, prompting concerns of potential misuses. In 2016, Dallas police officers used a "bomb robot" to remotely detonate an explosive in order to kill a sniper who killed five officers.

Although New York City has put its Digidog to rest, police departments in Massachusetts and Hawaii are also testing the device.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.