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Three men in military fatigues watch in the background as a robot dog, a headless piece of technology that walks on four legs, stands on a leaf-strewn path. Show caption The US Department of Homeland Security announced it was training robot dogs to help with security at the US-Mexico border. Photograph: Shannon Moorehead/US Air Force/AFP/Getty Images
US-Mexico border

Activists have argued that the tools in use – drones and towers equipped with night vision and radar – make the region dangerous to migrants

When the United States’ Department of Homeland Security announced in early February it was training quadruped “robot dogs” to help secure the US-Mexico border, the department’s spokesperson described the nearly 2,000-mile region as “an inhospitable place for man and beast, and that is exactly why a machine may excel there”.

But, of course, people do live, work, and try to eke out a living in this “inhospitable” desert space – leaving one to question what, exactly, the robot dog is meant to excel at?

The border has long been a testing ground for a range of emerging surveillance and policing technologies, which activists have argued make the space even more dangerous to migrants, all in the name of protection, law and order.

Nicknamed the “smart wall”, the tools used at the border include semi-autonomous surveillance drones and surveillance towers equipped with cameras and night vision, and radar. Former US congressman William Hurd, who represented the only Republican-held congressional district on the US-Mexico border for six years, endorsed a plan to bury fiber optic sensors capable of detecting underground movement.

The robot dogs would be one of many technologies deployed as part of the “smart wall”, but they aren’t limited to the border. US police departments started trying out the devices in recent years. Massachusetts state police tested the robot dogs in 2019. Police in Honolulu used the same model to remotely screen its unhoused citizens for Covid and scan their temperatures.

A border patrol agent stands near to three solar panels being used to power a portable surveillance camera installed on a tall pole. Joel Freeland, a US border patrol agent, stands near a surveillance tower set up on a ridge at the US-Mexico border. Photograph: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Police have used robots for decades, usually for remote monitoring or to respond to bomb threats. But reports of robot dogs draw fierce criticism, for several reasons. First, they’re debuting in public amid a nationwide discussion on police power. Also, they’re expensive, ranging anywhere between $90,000 and $150,000, when many are discussing police budgeting. They’re equipped with a host of AI-enabled surveillance devices, alarming privacy activists, and do terribly on social media because they bear an uncanny resemblance to the world-ending machines featured in Netflix’s dystopian satire Black Mirror.

This played out last year, when the New York police department (NYPD) announced it would suspend its contract with Boston Dynamics, one of the main manufacturers of robot dogs, and return its Digidog after footage of the dog went viral on social media. John Miller, the police department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counter-terrorism, blamed “politics, bad information, and cheap soundbites”.

In the Bronx neighborhood where NYPD deployed the robot, however, criticism of their use was based on their own experiences with police, rather than social media outrage. Councilmember Kevin Riley, who represented the neighborhood where NYPD deployed the robot, said residents had long complained that police were slow to respond to calls for service in the neighborhood and many felt ignored. When the robot dog appeared, people in the neighborhood were concerned this meant less human investment. They were afraid the robots were a substitute for sustained investment.

Robots in use by police are typically remote-controlled, such as this one on display in Cleveland, Ohio. Photograph: Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images

Police and public service robots rarely replace their human counterparts, but removing the human element is always a fraught design decision, especially for the vulnerable groups interacting with them. The robots used by police and potentially on the border are semi-autonomous, meaning while they’re capable of maneuvering on their own, they are usually remotely controlled by a human. That distance can be useful. Consider the prototypes of police robots that would take over during traffic stops, potentially making them safer for police and motorists, or other early versions that saw robot dogs as functional canaries used to investigate potential gas leaks or downed power lines on oil rigs, construction sites and power plants. But it also makes people deeply uncomfortable.

Crossing multiple terrains

Each of these concerns came to the fore when DHS made its announcement, with some advocating for destroying the robot dogs outright.

The version of the robot dog potentially coming to the south-western border is particularly dystopian, recalibrating the devices to be essentially roving sentries. Each is embedded with different types of cameras (thermal, night vision, long-range) and sensors (chemical, weapons detection). DHS praised the device’s ability to cross multiple terrains – including sand, rocks and hills – and its durability in high heat and cramped spaces.

DHS’ choice of vendor sparked additional concern. While most police departments leased their pups from Boston Dynamics, which forbids customers weaponizing any of their tech, DHS chose Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics. Late last year, the company debuted a version of its robot dogs equipped with long-range guns capable of hitting targets at a reported 1,200 meters.

DHS’s oddly cheery blogpost also implied the robots would be used beyond the border itself, including “towns, cities, or ports’’ where DHS agents might encounter dangerous conditions. Federal officials have increased authority to stop and search civilians within 100 miles of the border, despite fourth amendment protections against arbitrary or excessive stops and seizures. A 2019 report from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation tracked the surveillance devices used in border towns across the US, including facial recognition, military drones, cell-site simulators, license plate readers, body cameras and facial recognition.

DHS has chosen to lease its robot dog technology from Ghost Robotics, which has also debuted a company equipped with long-range guns. Photograph: Ghost Robotics/AFP/Getty Images

Human rights groups were, unsurprisingly, horrified.

“We create the conditions forcing people into taking the journey here, and now we plan to meet them with robot dogs?” said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director at Mijente, a Latino advocacy and migrant rights group, told TRT World.

Technology ethicists speak often of “mission creep”, wherein a specific technology or tactic is introduced for a single, specific purpose, then becomes normalized and introduced in new settings. Often this refers to the rise in military-grade equipment being funneled into US police departments, including the robot that Dallas police used to remote deliver and detonate a bomb in 2016, killing a sniper.

Going from gas-leak detection to migrant-hunting tools, robot dogs appear to fit the mission creep definition, bringing us back to the original question: what exactly are border robot dogs built to accomplish? Perhaps maintaining and automating the US border’s inhospitable character rather than subverting it, is the answer.

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