If you live in Singapore, something even more sinister than cops might now be waiting in the wings for you to make a mistake. The country’s government is now deploying robots to patrol for “undesirable social behaviors” like breaking COVID-19 rules or smoking in public. Singapore’s Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) announced the pilot program Sunday.
HTX is sending out two robots to start patrolling Toa Payoh Central, an area with lots of foot traffic. Both robots are named Xavier, a decidedly apocalyptic name. They’ll look out for these activities in particular:
- Smoking in prohibited areas
- Illegal hawking
- Improperly parked bicycles
- Congregation of more than five people
- Motorized active mobility devices and motorcycles on footpaths
The Xavier twins will not exactly be able to pull out a pair of handcuffs and drag you off to the police station, but they can (and will) call for police backup if necessary. They’ll also display “appropriate” messages letting people know what they’ve done wrong. Great. Just great.
It’s not not a cop — Xavier is not quite as creepy or swift as Boston Dynamics’ “Spot” robot, but it’s plenty smart. Each Xavier is equipped with 360-degree cameras, allowing it to surveil everyone in a given area in one go. The data from those cameras is immediately fed into an artificial intelligence system that automatically flags the aforementioned undesirable behavior for cops back at the station.
Oh and don’t worry, Xavier can see fine in the dark, too. It’s fully infrared capable and provides LED illumination when necessary to assist its low-light camera system. The robots are very much autonomous, too, with a full load of sensors allowing them to navigate crowded areas and obstacles.
Xavier is not a cop. The robots can’t arrest people or even really stop them from carrying out undesirable behaviors. But it can and will snitch on you before you’ve even noticed it lurking just over your shoulder. It’s an easy way for Singapore’s cops to watch your every move without actually paying someone to patrol.
Always watching — We’re dangerously close to sounding like a broken record here, but police surveillance is terrifying. Adding technology to the mix — a seemingly immense temptation for cops around the world — only serves to amplify existing power structures, disproportionately affecting people of color in particular.
There’s this book you’ve probably heard of called 1984 in which constant surveillance is provided to the totalitarian government via an extensive series of screens and cameras. Even if no humans are around, Big Brother is always watching you. No spoilers here, but the book doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. In fact, some might say it’s a direct warning of the dangers of surveillance technology. Actually, yeah, a lot of people would say that.
Xavier isn’t Big Brother, but it doesn’t take much critical thinking to see the trajectory here. Cops around the world are collectively spending billions on high-tech surveillance options. For those of us who aren’t police officers, the privacy quicksand is getting just a little too deep, a little too fast.