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Robocops In Real Life

18 November 2014 by Jenn Granger

The K5 Autonomous Data Machine looks a bit like the lovechild of EVE from Wall-E and R2D2 – and has been built to take over security jobs. Californian start-up Knightscope has designed these upgraded bots to replace human guards everywhere from schools to offices; and while they may just seem like a tech-savvy nod to Dr Who’s Daleks, the robot invasion is causing more than a little worry for some.


Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus is the new test ground for the K5 security bots, that patrol locations looking for intruders or anomalies which they report back to a remote control centre.  They need to be shown around their turf by a human first, but then rely on this basic map imprint to follow routes using GPS and WiFi.

The shiny tech behind the bots includes sensors, measuring movement, sound, location temperature, carbon dioxide levels and barometric pressure all powered by a big rechargeable battery, which could last about 24 hours on a single charge; though the K5 is supposed to monitor its battery life and wheel over to a charging pad when needed (which is, a little upsettingly, way lower maintenance than my iPhone, which apparently just lives to vex me).

K5 doesn’t carry any weapons though; the only thing it will assault is your ears, as it lets rip an ear-splitting alarm and sends for human backup if something triggers its sensors. They also act as help points, and if you need assistance and a robot is nearby you can press a button near the top of its head to call for help. This has potential to expand hugely – for example, as part of an app that would let students request one to walk them home on campus at night.

The aim is – like with the uni app – that eventually they could be used anywhere from shopping centres to schools. Knightscope co-founder Stacy Stephens said the K5 “takes away the monotonous and sometimes dangerous work, and leaves the strategic work to law enforcement or private security, depending on the application.” He reckons Knightscope will start putting its robots in work from the beginning of next year (K5 bots are employed not bought), and the hourly ‘wage’ of $6.25 should entice companies used to paying double that amount for onsite security.

How much companies will actually want to rely on the bot guards though is another story. Stairs, for example, could be a problem; and if one falls over it takes several people to get it back up again, like a little bug stuck on its back. There are other hurdles they would have to overcome too – like getting people comfortable around them (maybe we’ve all seen too many Terminator films to relax completely) and they’ll need to prove their worth as a long term investment.

Plus they’ve got ‘bigger picture’ problems to fight against; as, whilst the tech is kinda cool, it’s in the eye of a worry storm. After recent years of economic uncertainty, people are – understandably, really – worried about the impact that the increasing use of robots will have on their own job security. A million robots were employed last year in the US (but their ‘wage’ was double that of the K5 – which may give this particular breed an edge); and robots are already used quite widely in manufacturing, as they become smarter and safer and can take over boring, repetitive tasks that humans once did.

Analytics firm Gartner predicts that by 2025 – less than eleven years away – one in three jobs will be done by robots. With the rise of drones, AI becoming increasingly effective, and smart tech getting smarter – for example, machines that once only marked multiple choice questions are now marking essays – it’s easy to see why people are worried.

However, pro-robos say that they are actually freeing up time for workers to do more interesting tasks, as well as increasing productivity. BMW already uses robots in its production line, and says we don’t need to worry: “Ideas come from people, and a robot is never going to replace that.”

It’s not only splitting opinion as to whether it’s a good thing, but also how soon we will have to really examine the issue; some say it will be a slow shift to a new era of jobs, others think it will be a matter of decades before this is something we have to consider. The main thing for businesses to consider right now though, is how they will adapt; and that the thing that is being protected is both the interests of humans and the progress that technology creates.

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