The US government is deploying robot dogs to the Mexican border. Seriously? | Moustapha Bayoumi

AAre we all doomed to live in Charlie Brooker’s techno-dystopia? In Metalhead, a season four episode of her acclaimed Netflix show Black Mirror, a woman navigates a stark post-apocalyptic landscape while fleeing from a murderous robot dog for her life. What makes the series’ mechanized beast particularly frightening is the deadly combination of a computer program’s determination with the extreme ferocity of an angry wild dog.

But that’s only TV, right? Not exactly. The military, tech, security, and political classes of this country seem united in their desire to make robot dogs part of our future, and we should all be concerned.

The latest example came on February 1, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a Press release titled “Robot Dogs Take Another Step Towards Border Deployment”. The DHS dressed up its statement with the kind of adorable language made to warm the hearts of dog lovers everywhere. “The Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate is offering U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) a helping hand (or ‘paw’),” the statement read. Isn’t that cute? A photo of the “four-legged ground drone” accompanied the release, and the “automated ground surveillance vehicle”, as it is called, looked remarkably (and frighteningly) like the monstrous quadrupeds seen in the Black Mirror episode. But let’s not judge on appearance. The real problem is that we keep rushing towards militarized and technological solutions to what are ultimately human and political issues, creating more problems along the way.

These particular robot dogs are made by Ghost Robotics, which says its 100lb machine has been “bred” to handle “all types of natural terrain, including sand, rocks and hills, as well as man-made environments, such as stairs”. Each robot dog is equipped with a multitude of sensors and capable of transmitting real-time video and information streams. The devices are not yet operational at the US-Mexico border, but a test and evaluation program is underway in El Paso, Texas.

Listening to DHS, it all sounds so lovely and so next-gen — until you realize what we’re talking about is the further encroachment of government surveillance on our daily lives. As Electronic Frontier Foundation Remarks“the people who live along the border are among the most heavily guarded people in the United States. A massive amalgamation of federal, state, and local law enforcement and national security agencies is flying drones, install cameras and fair in general attempt to deny civil liberties – capture the general comings and goings of people who live and work near the border.

Then there is the issue of lethal force. These specific land drones may not be armed, but Ghost Robotics is already infamous for the combination of a robot dog and a robot gun. In 2021, small arms maker Sword International (should these companies choose such dystopian names?) equipped a robot dog of Ghost Robotics with a bespoke weapon, called a “Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle” or Spur. This cherished invention was unveiled at the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army.

Incidentally, American politics not only “does not prohibit the development or employment” of killer robots (formally known as “lethal autonomous weapons systems” or laws), but also opposes any international precautionary ban. Meanwhile, as the Congressional Research Service notes, Israel has already exported what many consider a lethal autonomous weapons system to Chile, China, India, South Korea and Turkey. We are running out of time for a solid international dialogue on this issue.

Domestically, the short history of the use of robot dogs in our cities is also troubling. The Honolulu Police Department used around $150,000 in pandemic funding to buy its robot dog, which it then used to scan eyes and take temperatures homeless people to check for Covid symptoms. The practice raised alarm bells with advocates who said the practice was fundamentally dehumanizing. Needless to say that no person lodged was treated in this way.

And after public outcry in 2021, the New York Police Department returned its $94,200 robot dog, Digidog. This robot was deployed in a home invasion in the Bronx and a tense situation in a public housing building in Manhattan, attract attention angry of New Yorkers. Once again, many black and brown New Yorkers felt over-policed, over-policed ​​and under-funded.

“You can’t give me a living wage, you can’t raise the minimum wage, you can’t give me affordable housing; I work hard and I can’t get paid time off, I can’t get affordable childcare,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman said in a video he posted on Twitter. “Instead, we have money, taxpayers’ money, going to robot dogs?”

Bowman is not alone. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized both the NYPD’s robot dog in 2021 and the recent news of robot dogs on the border. “It’s shameful how both sides are fighting tooth and nail to defend their ability to pour endless public funds into militarization,” she said recently. tweeted. “From tanks in police departments to corrupt military contracts, funding for this violence is bipartisan + non-controversial, but health care + housing is not. It’s BS.

She’s right, of course, as is Bowman. Where exactly are our priorities?

The Biden administration has a chance to stop this program before the border becomes yet more of a militarized technological dystopia. We are so easily mesmerized by the enormous capabilities of technology, but the fact is that techno-military solutions to human problems too often create more problems than they solve. Just ask the homeless people of Honolulu, the poor in New York City and – if the program isn’t canceled – asylum seekers at the border. These are the people whose daily realities are increasingly weaponized by this technology. And because they are vulnerable and without political influence, they are the ones who live closest to an episode of Black Mirror. Meanwhile, the rest of us are being sold a list of high-tech merchandise that brings together everything Americans love — tech, dogs, and guns — and told to believe it’s all for the best.

Listen, I love my technology and all it can do as much as anyone else, but when our adoption of technology reduces rather than enhances our dignity, then we have a problem. Humans deserve better. And frankly, dogs too, even robots.

  • Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is an English professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

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