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Mobile robot developed as a safety, security tool for corporations, schools, neighborhoods

New York TimesDecember 8, 2013 

Knightscope’s K5 Autonomous Data Machine: The mobile robot is being developed as a safety and security tool for corporations, schools and neighborhoods.


The night watchman of the future is 5 feet tall, weighs 300 pounds, looks a lot like R2-D2 and will cost just $6.25 an hour.

Knightscope, a company based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has developed a mobile robot, known as the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, as a safety and security tool for corporations, schools and neighborhoods.

“We founded Knightscope after what happened at Sandy Hook,” said William Santana Li, a co-founder of the company. “You are never going to have an armed officer in every school.”

The minimum wage in the United States is $7.25. Coming in substantially under that cost, Knightscope’s robot watchman service raises questions about whether artificial intelligence and robotics technologies are beginning to assault the workforce.

The K5 is the work of Li, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, and Stacy Dean Stephens, a former police officer in Texas. They gained some attention in June for their failed attempt to manufacture a high-tech police cruiser at Carbon Motors Corp. in Indiana.

The co-founders have chosen to position K5 not as a job killer, but as a system that will upgrade the role of security guard, even if fewer humans are employed.

“We want to give the humans the ability to do the strategic work,” Li said in a recent telephone interview, describing a highly skilled analyst who might control a herd of security robots.

The robot is still very much a work in progress. The system will have a video camera, thermal imaging sensors, a laser range finder, radar, air-quality sensors and a microphone. It will also have a limited amount of autonomy, such as the ability to follow a preplanned route. It will not, at least for now, include advanced features such as facial recognition, which is still being perfected.

Li envisions a world of K5 security bots patrolling schools and communities, in what would amount to a 21st-century version of a neighborhood watch. The all-seeing mobile robots will eventually be wirelessly connected to a centralized data server, where they will have access to “big data,” making it possible to recognize faces, license plates and other suspicious anomalies.

Li said he believed he could circumvent privacy-rights objections by making the data produced by his robots available to anyone in a community with access to the Internet.

“As much as people worry about Big Brother, this is as much about putting the technology in the hands of the public to look back,” he said. “Society and industry can work together on this issue.”

This is essentially a reprise of the debate over Google’s Street View system, which has drawn opposition from privacy advocates. But while Google’s cars captured still images infrequently, a pervasive video and audio portal that autonomously patrolled a neighborhood would in effect be a real-time Street View system.

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