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Made in China security robot causes a stir

FEATURES: NZ Security, June2016

Is the AnBot really any different to the non-Communist security robots that have come before it?Is the AnBot really any different to the non-Communist security robots that have come before it?

 

Built by the National Defence University in China and promoted on social media by the Chinese Communist Party mouth piece People’s Daily Online, news of China’s new “intelligent security robot” has been received with widespread concern by netizens in the West. Considering international trends in the robotisation of security, is such roundly negative reaction actually justified or is it just a case of pananoid China bashing?

Unveiled at the 12th Chongqing Hi-Tech Fair in April, the robot is 1.49 metres tall and weighs 78 kilograms. It claims a top speed of 18 kilometres per hour and an operating duration of eight hours between charges, and is equipped with a remotely operated "electrically charged riot control tool" and an SOS button for people to notify police.

It has been dubbed ‘AnBot’, a transliteration of the Chinese ‘an’ (security) and ‘bao’ (to protect). The researchers say that the robot is designed to be used to patrol airports, train stations, shopping malls, hotels, banks, government buildings, warehouses and port facilities. It has already undergone test runs at a military camp, airport and museum in the inland Chinese city of Changsha with "very positive" user feedback.

According to the People’s Daily Online, “AnBot represents a series of breakthroughs in key technologies including low-cost autonomous navigation and intelligent video analysis, which will play an important role in enhancing the country's anti-terrorism and anti-riot measures.”

The report states that AnBot is able to patrol autonomously and “protect against violence or unrest.”

According to a report by Xinhua, China’s state newsagency, “Wei Quansheng, an officer from Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, said the robot guard can be used in many public places such as airports, stations and subways to help with police officers' anti-riot missions.”

Despite its immense size, Communist Party-ruled China is one of the most internally surveilled countries on earth. Party organs operate from the national level all the way down to individual neighbourhoods, streets and workplaces, and a collection of security services that are either government run or controlled combine to make China an unrivalled police state. In cyberspace, the infamous ‘Great firewall’ epitomizes the extent of surveillance and censorship in the People’s Republic.

It is, however, a police state that has faced tough security challenges in recent years, with increasing worker and social unrest and frequent mass demonstrations arising from a range of collective frustrations. Resentment over growing inequalities in wealth and opportunity, environmental problems, government corruption, forced evictions and failed petitions, gangster activity and personal disputes, has fuelled the trend.

Taser-enabled police robot slammed

It is perhaps the mention of its playing a role in China’s “anti-riot and anti terrorism measures” and protecting against “unrest” that has caused a number of international commentators to raise alarm bells over the new robot. Social media users have been quick to liken AnBot to Dr Who’s Daleks, Robocop’s ED-209 and other cinematic icons of mechanised dystopia.

Frances Eve, a researcher at NGO China Human Rights Defenders, is quoted by CNBS as commenting "Continued political interference in China's law enforcement bodies leads to the real worry that these robots could quickly become an Orwellian surveillance tool deployed against the population.”

But there is also concern that such robots could be used by an authoritarian state for the carrying out of violence that would otherwise be beyond the pale for flesh and blood security officers. And such concerns are not altogether misplaced.

In its infamously bloody suppression of Tiananmen Square activists in June 1989, the central government in Beijing resorted to trucking in military personnel from distant provinces to mow down unarmed members of the public. The deployment of mechanised security officers would take this one step further by removing the humanity element altogether and ensuring officer compliance.

The People's Daily Online news site tweeted a photo of the robot, which was then shared by American intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden with the caption: "Surely this will end well".

Popular Science’s website covered the story under the headline ‘China’s new security Dalek is a bad idea’, also published under license in Business Insider as ‘China debuts this awful taser-armed police robot’.

Rather than expressing concern over the possible state uses of the machines, many social media users saw the lighter side. According to Hong Kong Free Press, Chinese netizens have been quick to cast ridicule on the new robot: “Poor people can no longer even get the security job available,” said one. “I don’t believe it. Try and catch me, catch me! Do you know how to go down staircases?” said another.

Is the criticism fair?

The release of security robots over the years has kept us both entertained and enthralled. It’s now been a decade since Secom developed the Robot X, a six-wheeled outdoor surveillance robot designed to be either remotely controlled or pre-programmed to chase intruders, take high definition video pictures, issue loud warnings and release a dense, billowing cloud of smoke to frighten off the bad guys.

2012 saw the release of South Korea's Robo-Guard, a five-foot tall robot designed to patrol prisons on thick rubber wheels and equipped with cameras, including 3D, a microphone and speaker, and software designed to evaluate and report on out-of-the-ordinary inmate behaviour.

In comparisons of AnBot to actual existing security robots, it is the Knightscope K5 that it is said to most closely resemble. As reported in February’s NZ Security Magazine, the five-foot tall, 300-pound security robot has been turning heads on the streets of Silicon Valley since 2014, and was received in the media with largely positive curiosity.

The aesthetic similarities of the two robots are clear, but it’s what’s under their respective hoods that makes them markedly different. According to Popular Science, “K-5 is a mobile sensor platform that actually shares its data with the general public during emergencies. Anbot, on the other hand, can interact with the public, respond on scene to crimes, and has weapons to knock out human troublemakers.”

Previous security robots have offered little more than a deterrent effect to would-be perpetrators of crime. The AnBot takes things to an altogether new level due to two of its characteristics – the first one technical, the other policy. Firstly, it introduces an offensive capability through an electric – presumably taser-like – weapon. Secondly, it is the first security robot intended to perform anti-terror, anti-riot and anti-unrest functions.

AnBot fails to overcome the well-documented limitations of existing security robots, including the inability to negotiate a wide range of terrain and weather scenarios, and as such its role remains limited to very little beyond providing a prototype for what is possible. Ultimately, however, it is the robot’s very role as such a prototype that makes the AnBot a most justified object of dystopian discomfort.

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