The night watchman of the future is 5 feet tall, weighs 300 pounds and looks a lot like R2-D2 — without the whimsy. And will work for $6.25 an hour.
A company in California has developed a mobile robot, known as the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, as a safety and security tool for corporations, as well as for schools and neighborhoods.
“We founded Knightscope after what happened at Sandy Hook,” said William Santana Li, a co-founder of that technology company, now based in Sunnyvale, Calif. “You are never going to have an armed officer in every school.”
But what is for some a technology-laden route to safer communities and schools is to others an entry point to a post-Orwellian, post-privacy world.
“This is like R2-D2’s evil twin,” said Marc Rotenberg, the director of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, a privacy rights group based in Washington.
And the addition of such a machine to the labor market could force David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, to rethink his theory about how technology wrecks the middle class.
The minimum wage in the United States is $7.25, and $8 in California. Coming in substantially under those costs, Knightscope’s robot watchman service raises questions about whether artificial intelligence and robotics technologies are beginning to assault both the top and the bottom of the work force as well.
The K5 is the work of Mr. Li, a former Ford Motor Company 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 Corporation in Indiana.
Knightscope plans to trot out K5 at a news event on Thursday — a debut that is certain to touch off a new round of debate, not just about the impact of automation, but also about how a new generation of mobile robots affects privacy.
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,” said Mr. Li in a recent telephone interview, describing a highly skilled analyst who might control a herd of security robots.
The robot, which can be seen in a promotional video, 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 like facial recognition, which is still being perfected.
Knightscope settled in Silicon Valley because it was hoping for a warm reception from technology companies that employ large security forces to protect their sprawling campuses.
There are about 1.3 million private security guards in the United States, and they are low paid for the most part, averaging about $23,000 a year, according to the Service Employees International Union. Most are not unionized, so they are vulnerable to low-cost automation alternatives.
K5 also raises questions about mass surveillance, which has already set off intense debate in the United States and Europe with the expansion of closed-circuit television systems on city streets and elsewhere. The Knightscope founders, however, have a radically different notion, which involves crime prediction, or “precog” — a theme of the movie “Minority Report.”
“We have a different perspective,” Mr. Li said. “We don’t want to think about ‘RoboCop’ or ‘Terminator,’ we prefer to think of a mash up of ‘Batman,’ ‘Minority Report’ and R2-D2.”
Mr. 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.
Mr. Rotenberg said such abilities would rapidly encroach on traditional privacy rights.
“There is a big difference between having a device like this one on your private property and in a public space,” he said. “Once you enter public space and collect images and sound recordings, you have entered another realm. This is the kind of pervasive surveillance that has put people on edge.”
Mr. Li said he believed he could circumvent those 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.
For the moment, the system is unarmed, and it is certain to become the target of teenagers who will undoubtedly get a thrill from knocking the robot over. Mr. Li said he believed this was not an insurmountable challenge, given the weight, size and video-recording ability of the bots.
Mr. Rotenberg said a greater challenge would be community opposition. He acknowledged, however, that K5’s looks were benign enough. “It doesn’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said. “Unless he was rolled over and pressed into a ball.”