If you’re wandering around Singapore anytime soon, take some time to wave hi to your friendly neighbourhood snitch bot.
Singapore’s Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) will be deploying two robots named “Xavier” that the agency says use cameras with a 360-degree field of vision and analytics software to detect “undesirable social behaviours” in real time. First reported by Business Insider, the robots are designed to detect activities such as public smoking, violation of pandemic restrictions (i.e., groups of more than five people), and illegally selling goods on the street. Other behaviours the agency said the robots can snitch on include the use of motorised vehicles or motorcycles on pedestrian walkways and “improperly parked bicycles.”
The Xavier robots roll around on a “patrol route pre-configured in advance by public officers,” though they can deviate as necessary to avoid slamming into pedestrians or other obstacles. The plan is for the two robots to relay reports of such activity to a central police hub as well as confront violators directly with warning messages, with the first three weeks of deployment starting on Sept. 5 in Toa Payoh Central.
“Once Xavier detects any of the above, it will trigger real-time alerts to the command and control centre, and display the appropriate message (depending on the scenario) to educate the public and deter such behaviours,” HTX wrote in a press release. If necessary, the agency added, officers on duty at the command centre can “activate additional resources to respond to on-ground situations when necessary.”
The robots can also be remotely controlled by officers present in the control centre, who can also activate a two-way intercom that would allow them to talk to members of the public directly.
“The deployment of ground robots will help to augment our surveillance and enforcement resources,” Lily Ling, the director of the Singapore Food Agency’s East Regional Office, said in the release. “For instance, 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.”
This isn’t Singapore’s first robot rodeo. In 2020, Singapore’s National Parks Board and GovTech agency deployed a four-legged Boston Dynamics robot, of the famous “Spot” model, to wander parks barking at folks about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Singaporean authorities have also flown a fleet of dozens of drones over parks to give officers a “high vantage point” by which they could observe the number and density of visitors present.
Singapore has an infamously harsh legal code often considered one of the strictest in the world. It tried to control the spread of the novel coronavirus with far-reaching measures like mandatory quarantines for visitors, a Bluetooth contract tracing system, business shutdowns, and border restrictions, with the aforementioned Spot playing a small but highly visible role. The virus eventually wreaked havoc there regardless as more contagious variants emerged and this summer health authorities switched from a policy of eradication to control.
As of Sept. 7, according to CNN, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine estimates show Singapore has had nearly 69,000 cases (although just 55 deaths). Singapore has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world but, as CNN reported, an outbreak of the very infectious Delta variant has stalled attempts to roll back pandemic restrictions and return more of a semblance of normalcy to daily life.
U.S. police have ramped up their use of aerial drones for years, raising innumerable civil rights concerns in the process. But their attempts to roll out ground-based snitch bots have met with considerable controversy after police in Dallas, Texas used a robot with a bomb in 2016 to kill a suspect who had just murdered five police officers.
The New York Police Department bought its own Spot, complete with a special arm that would allow it to open doors, but was forced to remove it from duty thanks to massive public backlash and a City Council subpoena demanding to know how much money the cops were dropping on the contract. Police departments across the country have also started using autonomous aerial drones that can fly themselves to conduct surveillance and respond to emergency calls.