The Robots are not coming, they have arrived

by | May 9, 2020 | ICT4D |

Perhaps you’ve seen this sign in the park or in the news

It’s in Singapore. A dog robot is roaming the park reminding people to keep physical distancing. An operator remotely controls the dog, but it also has sensors to avoid hitting things. It comes complete with a camera, screen, and a loudspeaker. It’s an experiment to see if it helps keep people, who visit the park, apart. And it will be studied to learn a lot more than just that.

It’s a bit Robo-Cop, science fiction, futuristic-like in real life. For some, the reaction will likely be ‘wow, cool’ or ‘how cute’, while for others it will be ‘that’s terrible’ or ‘how ugly.’

For many, there is a general uncertainty reaction to robots of this nature. We have become ok with or reliant on google maps to tell us directions, using robotics in surgery, software analysing our internet usage to sell us ads, and so on, but robot dogs feels different. Drones delivering packages also feels different.

There must be something psychological about it. Perhaps its robo-dogs and drones feel more in your face, intrusive, present. Where the rest is behind the scenes, kind of known, but often wilfully unknown. We’re not exactly sure what or how to feel about it. It’s likely the reason they would tell you after landing that the flight was operated 100% by a computer. They don’t tell you that as you board! Probably because people would get off.

Singapore is a high-tech country. Technology has wide acceptance and use. That culture and COVID made the robo-dog experiment in Singapore possible. The pandemic rhetoric of needing physical distance and limited human contact made the introduction easier. It allows the framing to be able limiting human contact and promoting safety messages.

The same happens throughout the globe. Surveillance technology is legitimatised through the COVID framing. And for the avoidance of doubt, yes, I think technology has a role to play in the pandemic response. But I also believe technology’s role should be limited with a clear sunset clause articulate before we begin using it.

We are good a letting the genie out of the bottle, but we have no idea how to put it back in.

Photo from Boston Dynamics


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