Mall cops aren’t known for being incredibly useful, admirable, or even athletic. Perhaps the engineering behind the robotic mall cops in a Silicon Valley shopping center was actually too accurate.
A robotic mall cop recently mowed down a toddler named Harwin Cheng after hitting him in the head and knocking him down. The developer behind the robot, a California-based start-up called Knightscope, apologized for what they described as a “freakish accident” and sent the family an invitation to visit its Mountain View headquarters.
According to Knightscope, “A child… began running towards the machine… The machine veered to the left to avoid teh child, but the child ran backwards directly into the front quarter of the machine, at which point the machine stopped and the child fell on the ground.”
“The machine’s sensors registered no vibration alert, and the machine motors did not fault as they would when encountering an obstacle,” Knightscope explained. They then tweeted a chart showing its low incident report numbers and the following message:
“Incident report issued and our offer to have the family visit with us here at Knightscope still stands.”
Knightscope’s 5 foot tall, 300 pound machines are called K5 Autonomous Data Machines and patrol pre-programmed routes recording video in both normal and infrared vision. Before the incident with the child, the machines has been in operation for over 35,000 hours and covered over 25,000 miles “without any reported incidents.”
Chief executive of Knightscope William Santana Li issued a statement saying “Our first thoughts are for the family, and we are thankful there were no serious injuries…”
“Our primary mission is to serve the public’s overall safety,” Li continued, “and we take any circumstances that would compromise that mission very seriously.”
Since the incident occurred, the shopping center has taken all of its robotic sentries off duty. Whether the robots will be put back into commission remains in question, though the company’s excellent record in terms of reported incidents is definitely worth taking into consideration.
While my first reaction to group the robot mall cop into the category of ridiculous innovations coming from Silicon Valley that are neither necessary nor helpful, perhaps that would be painting the situation with too wide a brush. It’s likely very difficult to make any piece of technology built to work autonomously among groups of people without accidentally pushing or causing harm to anyone ever- most people have accidentally knocked into a small child or had a child trip over them in a crowded place.
Perhaps the distaste that the event brings up is rooted in the concept of a robotic mall cop in the Silicon Valley- nothing sounds more annoying and pathetic, more like a dumb robot that you would want to kick. And then it runs over a child and you think wow, this robot is actually more inept than a normal mall cop.
But it sounds like the robot is actually fairly sophisticated and that hiccups like these might be somewhat unavoidable when a startup is riding the razor’s edge of autonomous robotic technology. Most importantly, the child wasn’t badly injured.