Intelligent Humanoids Policing America’s Streets

For decades, Hollywood has paired robots and androids with humans in their scripts. On the big screen, these pairings introduce the coexistence of the artificial with the living. Usually, the artificial serves the purpose of accomplishing tasks and processes that humans cannot.

In these storylines, the question of humanizing the artificial is often raised. In the movie Star Wars, R2D2, a small “droid,” is Luke Skywalker’s co-pilot, alter ego, and sometimes conscience. “R2” is able to compute and process in ways Luke cannot; Luke employs those tools time and again to achieve his goals. What has been reserved for Hollywood – robots helping man, in some cases, replacing man – has jumped off the movie screens and into life.

Can this advancing technology replace a human workforce, particularly police officers? Hollywood thinks so, and many others are also betting it will.

The Evolutionary Change of Tools Used by the Police

The field of law enforcement is constantly evolving to adopt strategies to better prevent crime (Lawrence, 2018). This concept is also seen in successful businesses that must adapt to survive. In its quest to better “protect” and “serve,” law enforcement has given its officers access to newer technologies (Lawrence, 2018).

For example, the slow and imprecise means of using fingerprint analysis to solve crimes has largely disappeared (Sharockman, 2010). Computers now process uploaded fingerprint samples to compare them in a matter of seconds to a database of prints nationwide (Sharockman, 2010). Applied technologies and processing power allow police departments to deploy robots with cameras, handheld lasers, unmanned aircraft systems and gunshot detection systems (Lawrence, 2018). Aaron Lawrence writes, “All of this new law enforcement technology means that police officers are doing a lot more than … laboring over piles of paperwork.” Perhaps the next step for policing is to delve into artificially intelligent humanoids to see if police duties can be conducted even safer, faster and efficiently.

Intelligent Humanoids

TOPIO (“TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot”) is a bipedal humanoid robot designed to play table tennis against a human being. TOPIO version 3.0 at Tokyo International Robot Exhibition, 2009. (Humanrobo)

A featured article by Kevin Kelly on the website Wired explained that we are in a “second wave” of automation; one that is, “centered on artificial cognition, cheap sensors, machine learning and distributed smarts” (Kelly, 2012).

PAL Robotics has deployed the first operational police robot in Dubai.

Kelly writes that the first wave dealt with assembly line automation that replaced human workers. This “second wave” will consist of a “migration” into other fields driven by artificial intelligence (Kelly, 2012). Today’s working robots take place in the field of space exploration, health care, public safety, entertainment and defense (Taylor, 2017).

PAL Robotics has deployed the first operational police robot in Dubai (Taylor, 2017). Robots sweep hay in a farm to feed cattle and move in the aisles of a warehouse to collect and inventory merchandise (Taylor, 2017). In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), robotic jockeys rode atop camels to guide them in a race displaying the robot’s ability to control an animal (Taylor, 2017).

PAL Robotics. (Alexander Svenson)

Working robots that automate many functions can also initially automate redundant police services such as traffic collision and minor criminal incident reporting to answering frequently asked questions from members of the public.

As these applications expand and become ubiquitous, they could create an alternative to their more expensive (and more problematic) human counterparts.

Increasing Expenses

Law enforcement is labor intensive. In Los Angeles City and County, their respective police and sheriff departments have over 10,000 law enforcement officers each (Zahniser, 2013). New York City boasts over 30,000 officers (Ganeva, 2018)! Chicago has over 12,000 police officers (Reyes, 2016).

The State of California’s Public Employees’ Retirement System does not have enough money to pay the benefits it has promised to its members reports the Sacramento Bee (Reese, 2018). Therefore, they have shifted the responsibility of funding this obligation to participating municipalities (Reese, 2018).

The City of Lodi is an example shared by many others. Lodi anticipates pension costs to increase from $6 million to $13 million over the next five years (Coleman, 2018). Lodi’s city manager, Steve Schwabauer, states this increase is, “[E]quivalent to funding our library, Parks and Rec Department, a police beat and a fire station” (Coleman, 2018).

Law enforcement can look to intelligent humanoids to lower costs, speed it up and do it safer.

Technology to limit the number of human staff, thus reducing costs cities cannot afford, offers the gateway to move away from being human labor intensive to using intelligent automation.

Law enforcement can look to intelligent humanoids to lower costs, speed it up and do it safer. The cost for a police officer robot is unknown, largely because it has not been tried.

In a 2016 article by Dmitry Slepov, “The Real Cost of Robotics,” he estimated that bringing a robot through production costs $30,000-60,000 each (Slepov, 2016). Slepov states that these costs may just cover manufacturing and parts only, programming hasn’t been factored in. Slepov does, though, write that automation and robots are coming. Robots as active police officers can move from being one dimensional, information providing machines and by merging intelligence with advancing mechanics produce an intelligent humanoid.

Programming a Police Robot to Make Ethical Decisions

A key advantage to deploying police robots is the lack of concern when a robot must apply force. Often, fear plays a role in an officer’s decision. A robot has no feeling of fear, and if programmed properly, will not allow for bias or prejudice. Therefore, all uses-of-force would be justified based on a strict programming of the robot. But who gets to program a law enforcement robot?

The UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence invited fifty of the world’s leaders in AI, “with the goal of developing a roadmap for nations to follow…” (Creighton, 2018). Creighton discussed that ethics should be inputted like designing DNA to ensure artificial intelligence does not malfunction. But whose ethics?

Eventually, the assembled panel was not able to conclude how an intelligent humanoid should be programmed. There is no consensus because this is truly a realm that cannot be governed by a nation or a people group. Like the Internet, no one owns it (Creighton, 2018).

Experts in the field of artificial intelligence believe that the evolving intelligence of robots will catch and surpass humans by 2045 in what is termed the technological singularity.

Computer scientist Ehsan Hoque (Human-Computer Interaction Lab-Rochester University) says that when it comes down to bias and programming, “Machines have an inherent bias (as they are built by humans) so we need to empower users in ways to make decisions” (Stone, 2018).

Can a robot than be trusted to operate a patrol car and respond to calls? Ultimately, experts believe so. Experts in the field of artificial intelligence believe that the evolving intelligence of robots will catch and surpass humans by 2045 in what is termed the technological singularity (Galeon, 2018). This means that artificial intelligence is moving quickly and is developing an intelligence that will surpass humans.

A 2016 article by April Glaser looked at 11 police robots being use around the world. These robots still require human input to control it and interpret its surroundings. One of these robots deployed in South Korea’s demilitarized zone is reported to have an autonomous function to detect threats, heat and motion (Glaser, 2016). These advances strongly indicate we are on a path to incorporate AI so that the human requirement to control and interpret the environment and its threats will no longer be needed.

A Socially Responsible Workforce 

As robots take over the duties once accomplished by humans, what will happen with the human workforce? Beyond the local police department, the impact of robots completely replacing human workers could negatively impact nations worldwide. Futurists Thomas Frey predicts that advances in technology will result in the loss of two billion jobs by 2030. Roughly half of Earth’s population will be unemployed (Buntz, 2013). But futurists do not believe that the human workforce is doomed.

Artificial intelligent machines will not replace a human workforce, only enhance them.

Co-Founder of Google X, Sebastian Thurn does not hold a doom and gloom point-of-view. In his statements at the World Government Summit, he predicts artificial intelligent machines will make “superhuman workers.” Repetitive and mundane jobs can be completed by artificial intelligent machines, leaving humans to be creative.

Therefore, artificial intelligent machines will not replace a human workforce, only enhance them. This is referred to as the “human-AI labor meld” (Galeon, 2018). Law enforcement agencies will see a reduction in its staffing, yet the staff that is retained may evolve to survive. The future police workforce could tackle larger issues with creativity and ingenuity that humans did not have the time or processing powers to address pre-artificial intelligence. Even though the thought of robots in policing may seem years away, the time to plan is now.

A Comprehensive Plan to Employ Humanoid Officers in the Workforce 

Law enforcement leaders cannot place their heads in the sand and declare “it’s not coming” when referencing advancing technology like artificial intelligence. It is not an “around the corner” timeline.

Robots driving police cars may not be around the corner but the technical partnerships have begun.

Pierre Barreau, CEO, Avia Technologies speaks about hardware this way, “[W]e are hitting the ceiling of Moore’s law…” (Galeon, 2018). But about software, Barreau explains, “[W]e still have a long way to go … AI algorithms require thousands, if not millions, of examples to train themselves successfully. We humans are able to learn new tasks much more efficiently by only seeing a few examples” (Galeon, 2018).

Law enforcement leaders should embrace emerging technologies. Robots driving police cars may not be around the corner but the technical partnerships have begun.

Private-public partnership is exemplified in Chula Vista Police’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Program. Drone “telepresence” company, Cape Aerial Telepresence, provides Chula Vista PD the equipment, software platform and expertise to utilize drones as first responders (Margaritoff, 2018). Cape hopes to integrate drone technology for commercial purposes (Margaritoff, 2018).

Law enforcement agencies that partner with the private sector will benefit from their subject expertise while becoming smarter, faster and even safer.

The television show Star Trek – The Next Generation introduced viewers to Data, an intelligent human-like android. Data could process faster, was much stronger than humans and did not need to sleep or fall ill. Russell Webb (2016) explored the feasibility of building a “Data” today. He concluded that the computing power and data storage is available, yet the progression of artificial intelligence and robotics in 2016 cannot yet reproduce a Data android (Webb, 2016). That does not mean that in five to ten years, using AI, robotics, and related technologies, a close match to the functions of robots of science fiction will not occur.


Replacing a human police officer with a robotic substitution is no simple task. If the goal is simple automation; police departments can invest in advanced kiosks and software to handle the mundane tasks. Yet the outlook is not about a simple substitution. Reducing labor costs, enhancing productivity and eliminating errors are some of the goals of replacing a human police officer.

Today’s robots are imperfect, but they show tremendous promise and growth. It is this exponential technological growth that allows futurists to walk out on a limb and make bold predictions that intelligent robots may displace human workers within 20-30 years from today.

Whether this happens is an unknown. Yet the signs point to a likelihood that it will. Law enforcement agencies, in fact all industries, would be best served to look into the future and see how quickly their reality will change.



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Christian Hsu is a police captain with the Pomona Police Department (Southern California). He has over 24-years of service and currently oversees their Operations Division. He has worked assignments in patrol, investigations and traffic. For over 20-years, he served as a use-of-force instructor and program manager. He graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in criminology, law and society.