December 06, 2016      

As robotic systems gain mobility, dexterity, and intelligence, their use in military operations is expanding. Technical improvements are not only making robots effective colleagues on the battlefield, but they’re also sending robot security into the streets for civil security operations and slowly but surely into the home.

I recently consulted with the U.S. Navy on all things “transhuman.” In my conversations about how science and technology can help the human race evolve beyond its natural limits, we discussed robots and their increasing usage in the military. The military is clearly keen on replacing human soldiers with both fighting and peacekeeping machines, so American lives never have to come under fire or be in harm’s way.

However, the peacekeeping technology is particularly interesting to many civilians. While nobody wants an armed Terminator in their home, people would more likely accept a security robot that travels with them and offers personal protection, like a bodyguard.

Business Takeaways:

  • For investors and the robotics industry, security robots present a wide range of opportunities within different applications.
  • With the active threat of criminals and terrorists attacking civilians, more communities will adopt robot security for low-cost protection and high-value capabilities.
  • Robotic systems have become a vital component of the military operational commander’s battlefield toolkit. In the U.S., the 2014-2018 budget for drones and other unmanned systems is estimated around $23.8 billion.

A survey by Travelzoo of 6,000 participants showed that nearly 80 percent of people expect robots to be a significant part of their lives by 2020 — including having robots along for vacations or for personal safety.

I’d love to regularly have a robot watching me to make sure no one is going to harm me or my family, and so might millions of other people. They’d likely want robot security in the same way tens of millions of Americans have guard dogs to protect family, property, and person.

Who doesn’t want a protective butler that’s programmed to care about your safety? It could also greet guests or accept packages at the front door.

Robot security on the rise

The global robotics industry is already moving rapidly toward the deployment of civilian security robots. For example:

  • In April, China’s National Defense University unveiled Anbot, which is equipped with autonomous navigation, intelligent video analysis, and tasers for riot control.
  • South Korea already uses mobile robots guards in its prisons.
  • In San Francisco, you can rent out robot guards to protect your businesses and property.
AnBot from China's National Defense University

China’s AnBot is programmed for robot security, including riot control.

So far, the jury is out on how well these robots serve the public interest. Knightscope’s rent-a-robot service was criticized when a robot accidentally ran over a toddler in July at a shopping center.

Needless to say, problems are expected as the burgeoning field of human-robot interaction evolves. The good news is there’s already years of information to draw on. Robot interaction and protection have been here in the form of robotic dogs for nearly a decade.

While robot pets might not yet be any more efficient than well-placed cameras, microphones, or speakers, they offer personal protection to consumers, as well as a sense of novel interaction.

Other technologies advance security

It’s not just robots that offer personal security. Drones that can follow you mountain biking in the forest or your child walking to school are already here.

In addition, personal residences are now being wired with basic artificial intelligence systems, such as fire alarms that can communicate with its residents and alert the police if something is wrong.

Some smartphone apps, like SafeTrek, alert authorities if a held phone is dropped. This can be especially useful if you’re walking in dangerous areas late at night.

The age of robot law enforcement is here

The age of near-total robot security will likely be here in less than a decade. The U.S. got a small inkling of this in July, when the shooter in Dallas who tragically killed five police officers was reportedly killed by a robot that detonated a bomb. It’s considered the first known killing of a human by a police robot.

Given the increasing number of police forces around the U.S. expressing interest in robot security support, it’s surely is the start of a much broader system of security across the land. The market for law enforcement robots hit about $1 billion in 2015, and some research firms expect it to reach $5.7 billion by 2022.

In my presidential campaign, I advocated for tens of thousands of drones monitoring America’s borders instead of a giant wall, as President-elect Donald Trump had proposed. Drones would cost far less, support multiple operations, and be far more environmentally friendly.

Who watches the watchers?

While the robot that killed the Dallas shooter is not yet capable of offering much security to the average person, the writing is on the wall that there will be significant investments in the emerging market for personal robot security. The four Navy officers who came to my home and I all concluded that personal security in the future would be heavily dominated by robots.

The four U.S. Navy officers who came to my home and I all concluded that personal security in the future would be heavily dominated by robots.

What isn’t so easily determined is who will decide the rules of protection — and engagement. Do we follow Asimov’s outdated laws? Do we give robots power to kill in the pursuit of safety? Will a government body be responsible for regulating robots?

These are the types of questions I raised in my speech at RoboBusiness 2016 and that will dominate conversations around robot bodyguards as they become reality.

Multiple government agencies will have to be involved with the regulation of personal robot bodyguards. I’ve advocated for the creation of a central agency to green-light robot security applications in the first place.

Even more so than the Internet, the age of robots presents a plethora of ethical questions that humans have not faced before.

Whether on the battlefield or in civilian life, we should never forget that humans haven’t yet mastered providing security to themselves. This is why there’s been such controversy this year around accusations of police brutality across the U.S.

Philosophers, ethicists, roboticists, and politicians will have to come together to determine the best path forward and who is liable when failures occur.

Managing threats

One thing is for sure: despite the accidents that will occur, there’s nothing quite like the presence of an 8-foot-tall piece of intelligent machinery ready to physically confront some rogue element when you need it.

Zoltan Istvan

Bear in mind, those rogue elements aren’t just people — they could include wild animals, poisonous snakes, mean dogs, or a burning house out of which one needs to carry an unconscious human.

Interestingly, another concern is robots protecting humans against other robots. Developed nations might program robots to be our bodyguards, but there’s always the possibility of nations where civil strife runs prominently doing exactly the opposite.

Will there be a market for robots that carry out dirty or criminal work? Will a black market for robot assassins emerge? The answers are almost certainly yes.

More on Robot Security and Policy:

How smart is smart enough?

Then there are the questions about machine intelligence. If a machine is smart enough to know the difference between a bad guy and a good guy, would it have any thoughts of whether it is good or bad itself? That can of worms is reflected in Hollywood’s recurring obsession with AI.

My guess is that robots that provide security will never be programmed to be too smart. They’ll be programmed to be good at their jobs.

People and governments won’t want machines to make too many decisions on their own, at least not until we have nearly “perfected” security robots. And that’s a long way away.

The good news is self-driving car technology will be about five years ahead of robot security guard technology. I’m sure it will provide a wealth of real life information to draw upon, especially in terms the complex moral choices that machine intelligence faces.

The classic question with self-driving cars is that, if forced with a choice of whether to harm a family of five or harm a single person, what does the car choose? This type of programming must also be built into robot security guards.

Regardless of all the thorny questions and conundrums coming in the age of robotics, a personal robot bodyguard is something that is just years away from purchase. I suspect many people will want one.