The year is 2010. I’m twelve years old and venturing down the all too familiar YouTube suggested videos rabbit hole. Among the Smosh, Nyan Cat and generally now crusty memes, I vividly remember discovering a video of a four-legged robot. The robot was freakishly dog-like, repeatedly climbing stairs, being kicked over and self-righting in a strangely life-like, authentic fashion. Even then, with my prepubescent brain, I remember thinking “woah, the future looks kind of… scary.”
Of course, at that age, my vocabulary didn’t stretch as far as ‘dystopian’ but that’s exactly how I would have described it today. Fast forward a decade and the future has arrived. The four-legged, K9-esque contraption has hit the streets of the US. In the capital city of Hawaii, Honolulu, to be exact. The robo-dog is called Spot—that’s pretty much where its lovability ends.
In the midst of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the world was locking down and preparing for the storm of the virus to reach their shores, the federal government of the US passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, freeing up billions of dollars for states and local governments to provide aid for people in need.
California implemented a more generous paid sick leave programme. Massachusetts implemented a pandemic unemployment assistance scheme. The Honolulu Police Department (HPD), on the other hand, had different plans. The department, which polices the city which ranks the highest in the US in per capita homelessness, decided to splash out on a $150,000 giant robot dog to monitor the homeless population.
Now, I have to give the HPD some credit, they’re not the only US police department to spend tax dollars on Boston Dynamic’s unsettling robo-dog. In the same year, NYPD proudly unveiled its own $94,000 dog bot to patrol the streets of New York City. The scheme was short-lived—after receiving a unilateral “fuck this shit” response from New Yorkers, the contract was terminated barely two months later. I guess robot dogs aren’t a man’s best friend after all.
The HPD made other purchases to supposedly help the population and keep the peace during the COVID-19 pandemic: dropping more than $27,000 on a drone; $50,000 on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and a whopping $4.1 million on trucks, according to Honolulu Civil Beat. However, the implementation of Spot used to “take body temperatures, disinfect, and patrol the city’s homeless quarantine encampment” during the pandemic, understandably turned the most heads.
The significant investment of $150,045 on Spot was justified by the department who argued that they wouldn’t have to pay officers additional overtime to administer temperature and wellness checks to the city’s homeless population. The robo-dog supposedly limits direct exposure to coronavirus infections and could monitor the temperature of inhabitants in the encampment to determine whether they were displaying signs of fever. Essentially, Spot is the world’s most expensive thermometer on four legs.
The argument of whether Spot was a worthwhile investment, saving money on overtime pay, is flimsy at best. Luckily, to save us all from a completely dystopian reality, Spot isn’t fully autonomous and seems to require an officer to operate the machine while on the clock. Good to know we won’t be seeing a robot dog revolution any time soon.
Boston Dynamics, the master-mind company behind the robo-dog machine, told VICE in a statement: “Spot was under the control of a human operator and used to remove humans from potentially hazardous environments.” The company also stated that the robot “is not designed or intended to replace a police officer or social worker, but rather to augment the work of public safety officials and police departments.”
The sad matter of fact is that, although the dystopian robot dog patrolling the streets wasn’t intended for ill purpose, the injustice comes when you consider where the money could’ve been spent instead. Honolulu Police received a sizable $40 million package through the CARES Act and, according to Mic, spent a “good chunk of it on toys.” The Household Relief Fund, set up to help people teetering on the edge of homelessness with support of rent and utility payments, got almost half of that money—just $25 million.
Homeless individuals are one of the most vulnerable populations in society, with a significantly higher mortality rate than the general population. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Homeless people were twice as likely to be hospitalised; two to three times more likely to require critical care; and up to three times more likely to die than others during COVID-19, according to figures shared by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Couple these statistics with the fact that Honolulu appeared to not take advantage of other federal programmes, such as the Federal Management Agency programme, which would’ve helped keep unhoused people safe during the pandemic and you get the stark unjust picture. Luckily, I don’t think we’ll be seeing these freakish robot dogs popping up in a city near you anytime soon, and if they’re used in good faith, it’s important to consider whether money could be spent better elsewhere beforehand.