A scene in the 2004 film “I, Robot” involves an army of rogue NS-5 humanoids establishing a curfew and imprisoning the citizens of Chicago, circa 2035, inside their homes. That’s not how Knightscope envisions the coming day of deputized bots.
In its far less frightful future, friendly R2-D2 lookalikes patrol our streets, school hallways, and company campuses to keep us safe and put real-time data to good use. Instead of the Asimov-inspired NS-5, Knightscope, a Silicon Valley-based robotics company, is developing the K5.
Officially dubbed the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, the 300-pound, 5-foot-tall mobile robot will be equipped with nighttime video cameras, thermal imaging capabilities, and license plate recognition skills. It will be able to function autonomously for select operations, but more significantly, its software will provide crime prediction that’s reminiscent, the company claims, of the “precog” plot point of “Minority Report.”
“It can see, hear, feel, and smell and it will roam around autonomously 24/7,” said CEO William Santana Li, a former Ford Motor executive, in an interview with CNET.
At the moment, the K5 is only a prototype, and Knightscope next year will launch a beta program with select partners. But the company is shooting to have the K5 fully deployed by 2015 on a machine-as-a-service business model, meaning clients would pay by the hour for a monthly bill, based on 40-hour weeks, of $1,000. The hourly rate of $6.25 means the cost of the K5 would be competitive with the wages of many a low-wage human security guard.
Servicing and monitoring of the bots will depend on client needs, Li said, with either Knightscope or the customer employing someone to manage the bots full-time.
Crime prediction is one of the more eye-popping features of the K5, but the bot is also packed to the gills with cutting-edge surveillance technology. It has LIDAR mapping — a technique using lasers to analyze reflected light — to aid its autonomous movement. “It takes in data from a 3D real-time map that it creates and combines that with differential GPS and some proximity sensors and does a probabilistic analysis to figure out exactly where it should be going on its own,” Li explained.
It also has behavioral analysis capabilities and enough camera, audio, and other sensor technology to pump out 90 terabytes of data a year per unit. Down the line, the K5 will be equipped with facial recognition and even the ability to sniff out emanations from chemical and biological weapons, as well as airborne pathogens. It will be able to travel up to 18 mph, and later models will include the ability to maneuver curbs and other terrain.
The K5 will not be armed. Still, teens with late-night bot-tipping ambitions had best beware, lest their hijinks be recorded for posterity, and possible prosecution. Li said that messing with a Knightscope bot — which would be difficult given its weight — will have serious ramifications, as would tampering with any other form of security equipment on private property.
Still, the most sci-fi of all its features, the crime prediction algorithms, do sound too good to be true. And to be more precise, the K5 won’t be so much predicting crime as much as it will be analyzing multiple data points simultaneously and knowing when a situation may be on the precipice of becoming dangerous.
“Predicting crime is being deployed today, but it’s unfortunately using a lot of historical data,” Li explained. “What doesn’t exist in that algorithm is real-time on-site data. So if you actually had data that was fresh, that was actually from the location you’re trying to analyze, it would make that algorithm much more robust.” Li noted that the main goal of the crime prediction algorithms and autonomous function is to be able to push out an alert early with that kind of data, as well as aid the K5 in knowing when to charge itself and what time of day or night is optimal for uploading and downloading data in a specific environment.
“That extra 30 seconds or that extra 17 minutes … that time could actually save someone’s life,” Li added. The K5 will require a human being on the other end, both to manage it in the event it cannot rely on autonomous movement and to be able to interpret the alert data and loop in the necessary law enforcement agencies.
“What security 3.0 looks like: it’s a human, it’s robotics, and it’s actual intelligence,” Li said.
A K5 in every school, eventually
Security bots are one of the healthier subsets of the robotics industry. iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba vacuum bot, supplies both consumer and military-grade bots that perform a multitude of functions from cleaning floors, pools, and gutters to aiding bomb squads. And a number of smaller companies and research university projects have cooked up everything from consumer robots for personal property to helicopter drones for surveillance purposes.
Where the robotics industry has been lacking is in providing public spaces and large businesses with an all-purpose and highly capable bot that anyone in need of security and surveillance can employ, with military-grade guts that detect deviations from everyday activity.
“Our plan is to be able to cut crime by 50 percent in an area. When we do that, every mayor across this planet is going to be giving us a call,” Li said confidently.
Knightscope derives some of its crime-fighting motivation from recent school shootings. “Must a hero be human?” the company asked when it announced in September that the K5 is being designed with the Sandy Hook Promise in mind. It hopes to have its bot one day patrolling schools because “you are never going to have an armed officer in every school,” Li told The New York Times recently.
Li cited other examples of situations where security professionals could reasonably expect to need assistance, such as large-scale concert venues and sporting events. The goal is twofold: to offer a security robot that is vastly more capable than current options, but also to reassure the public that the the presence of K5 units is no threat to privacy.
“The likelihood a criminal is going to walk into an area with a few hundred droids, and the community is engaged using this tool and that transparency is there and there’s no privacy concerns — a criminal is going to have second thoughts,” Li said.
While no schools have yet signed up to put K5 machines outside classrooms, Knightscope has partnered with FIFA to bring its bot to the World Cup next year summer in Brazil. It’s also working, Li noted, with “some of the largest malls,” some private security companies, and a well-known insurance firm.
As for whether Knightscope is working with any defense contractors or the US military, Li was tight-lipped, adding that the company had been approached but could not talk specifics.
A better security guard — at the expense of human jobs
While keeping schools safe is an undeniably noble pursuit, Knightscope, with its competitive hourly pricing model, is also targeting the security industry from the bottom up, taking aim at the particularly vulnerable group of 1.3 million private security guards nationwide who are typically non-unionized workers and who mostly earn a minimum wage that amounts to around $23,000 annually.
Even then, that makes the K5 — at $6.25 an hour and $36,000 a year, with each unit capable of performing up to three eight-hour shifts a day — a job-killing prospect. “It is triple-shift-capable,” Li said when discussing the K5’s endurance, noting that the machine can run up to 24 hours on a single charge.
Li and co-founder Stacey Stephens, a former Texas police officer, chose Sunnyvale, Calif., for Knightscope’s headquarters, as a way to appeal to the needs of Apple, Facebook, and the many other Silicon Valley institutions with sprawling campuses and elaborate security needs.
And Knightscope relies on the commonplace line of argument touting the benefits of automation. “That gives a security company a tool that’s much more cost-effective and gives security guards and law enforcement a much more meaningful job,” Li said. “Those jobs are miserable for a lot of folks.”
Google, which maintains a sprawling facility in nearby Mountain View, is currently tangled up in a long-running labor dispute between its non-unionized security guards and the contractor it hires, Security Industry Specialists. Whether the company would do away with security workers aiming to unionize and replace them with robots like the K5 is a debate that is now more timely than ever.
Kevin O’Donnell, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union’s Stand for Security campaign that handles disputes of this nature, doesn’t place any blame on Knightscope or the K5 for potential displacement of security guard workers down the line due to automation. Rather, he puts the responsibility on tech companies.
“I would say that companies like Apple and Google need to think about the impact of these decisions on the community in Silicon Valley,” O’Donnell said. “What is going to be the economic impact on the community? Already, you see huge rates of homelessness in Silicon Valley, huge rates of poverty, and huge rates of food stamp participation.”
Knightscope has not announced any official partnerships with Silicon Valley tech companies for its 2014 beta, but did disclose that will be setting up K5 units in a “particularly large Silicon Valley city.”
Still, Li is adamant about Knightscope’s vision of bringing to reality what many feel to be the inevitability of automation closer, and sounds a theme often heard from proponents of robots. “Let the human do the strategic work, and the machines do the monotonous and sometimes dangerous work,” he said.
O’Donnell pointed out, meanwhile, that even if automation opens up new opportunities, that doesn’t automatically equate to better employment of security guards. “If new employment is generated, what kinds of jobs are these going to be? Are they going to be good jobs, and will they sustain communities?” he asked.
“And of course,” he added, “who will have access to those jobs?”
Eyes and ears on every street corner
Even if you buy into the proposed benefits of automation and the need for more high-tech security in schools and businesses, privacy issues boil to the surface most notably when it comes to the K5’s role in public spaces.
But Li likens the potential privacy infringements of the K5’s video and audio recording capabilities — not to mention its facial and license plate recognition — to necessary evils that could become inconsequential when weighed against the benefits of robotic security.
“If you’re in the public, the assumption of your privacy is a little bit different than in your home,” Li said. When asked about the possibility of making people uncomfortable with the 360-degree image-capturing capabilities of the K5, Li defended the approach of pushing the boundaries of privacy in the name of innovation. “Fear doesn’t effect or make a positive change. Technology can make a huge change in change in saving people’s lives. Our intentions are honorable here,” he added.
The company is aiming to make the K5’s crime data publicly available on a Web-based platform. It hopes that that measure will reassure communities that the K5 can be a positive force for public safety.
“There’s been some concerns about facial recognition,” Li acknowledged. “But what if I told you that you could actually match the kid to the right license plate to the right car so the right kid can be going into the right vehicle?” he posited. With the K5’s license plate and facial recognition technology — alongside its LIDAR 3D mapping and predictive software that keeps track of daily patterns — that may not be a fantasy.
“What puts people on edge is not necessarily privacy. What puts people on edge is being shot at,” Li said. “I think we have an opportunity to have those instances stop, or at least significantly decline them by having these types of machines in the community.”
Additional reporting by Kara Tsuboi.