On November 5, a strange sight greeted guests of a TechInMotion conference at the Microsoft Campus in Silicon Valley. Human-sized, Dalek-shaped Knightscope security bots patrolled the grounds, gliding smoothly, avoiding petty obstacles like curbs, lamp posts, and pedestrians. At the moment, there are only seven of the so-called K5 units, but Knightscope has big plans for the sensor-laden machines. They promote them as being something you could hire for $6.25 an hour, well under the minimum wage required for a human security guard.

Knightscope has been designing, building and testing the devices since 2013.  They have plans to deploy four of them into active service by the end of this year. The K5s are supposed to be able to observe their environment, compare what’s going on to whatever passes for normal, and report anomalies they encounter. That requires a fairly impressive level of machine intelligence.

The K5 has four high-definition cameras and four microphones, so it can see and hear in all directions at once, but it doesn’t necessarily process all that information itself; if it finds anything it isn’t prepared to process itself, it sends it via Wi-Fi to a human supervisor’s console. Starting with a base map of the environment it’s supposed to patrol, it fills in details on its own. It also has a license plate recognition camera, a GPS unit to help it with navigation, and a weather sensor (which looks like a DVD-player slot) for measuring barometric pressure, carbon dioxide levels, and temperature.  It’s also got a laser beam, but before you get excited, it’s just a low-power one, used for range-finding so it doesn’t bump into things like walls and people. Yes, it is a laser beam, but no, it is not of the “fricking” variety commonly found strapped to the heads of sharks.

They can also raise various levels of alarm if they are impeded or tampered with. They don’t carry weapons, so they can’t actually defend themselves from harm, nor accidentally harm a human being.

What we think an early prototype may have looked like.

It’s hard not to look at these things and not wonder at the source of the inspiration for them. They are about five feet tall, about two feet in diameter at the base. They lack anything that looks like useful appendages, yet manage to get their business done anyway. They’re covered with mysterious features of unknown function. They have lights on their upper bodies that flash from time to time. Lastly, they absolutely have a problem with stairs. They’re also not immune to being tipped over. One of them had to be rescued by its support crew at the TechInMotion conference as it had fallen over when it hadn’t noticed the edge of a sidewalk it was using. What does this remind us of?  It’s on the tip of our tongue. Oh, wait. We know.

Will security guards be replaced by these robots? Perhaps a few will, but on the whole, we don’t think so. They require a trained human supervisor, will suffer field breakdowns, can’t manage things like doorknobs, elevators or stairs, and require some fairly sophisticated technology to manufacture. Of course, the bloom will be off the rose the first time one of them yells, “Exterminate!”

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