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Singapore's New Patrol Robots Will Snitch on 'Undesirable' Behavior in Public

In a sadly dystopic application of AI.

Singapore's New Patrol Robots Will Snitch on 'Undesirable' Behavior in Public
One of the Xavier robots. HTX

Singapore is known for its strict law enforcement — almost anyone who's lived there or visited will know the long-running joke that it's a fine city, as you can easily earn a fine upwards of $1,000 for activities such as importing chewing gum, jaywalking, and smoking. 

That's why some might be worried to find out that the country is now engaging in robocop law enforcement, according to a press statement from Singapore government agency HTX. 

Singapore's new Xavier robots

Specifically speaking, Singapore is testing two robots that patrol public areas while detecting "undesirable social behaviors." The robots, called "Xavier," feature 360-degree cameras, allowing them to keep a constant gaze on their surroundings for anyone breaking the law.

The Xavier robots collect data through their 360-degree camera feeds and process it using AI video analytic software that is able to detect and flag any undesirable behavior in real-time. Infractions that the Xavier robots will look out for include smoking in prohibited areas, illegal hawking, and non-compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. "Once Xavier detects any of the above, it will trigger real-time alerts to the command and control center, and display the appropriate message (depending on the scenario) to educate the public and deter such behaviors," the HTX statement reads. The agency also says the robots will relay information to ground officers who can respond accordingly when needed.

To begin with, the Xavier robots will be trialed in the congested public area of Toa Payoh Central, due north of Singapore's busy shopping Orchard district and the residential neighborhood of Novena.

Controversy surrounds robotic law enforcement

Robotic law enforcement is a burgeoning field, steeped in controversy, and it's easy to see why there would be a public outcry over the use of robotic law enforcers given the fact that robotic law enforcement is a staple of dystopian fiction. In December 2020, the New York Police Department also trialed a Spot robot for law enforcement, though it canceled its $94,000 contract with Boston Dynamics early due to a public backlash. 

Singapore also turned to robotics to help enforce COVID-19 restriction in May 2020, when it deployed a Boston Dynamics Spot robot in parks to enforce one-meter social distancing rules. In the same year, a Spot robot was spotted in Sevilla, Spain handing contact-free beers to customers of a local bar in an unintended display of contrasting priorities.

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The crime rate in Singapore is remarkably low, pointing to a strong record within the country for implementing policies to ensure public safety. However, detractors might argue that two Xavier robots serve to bolster a heavy-handed approach to law enforcement in a country where caning is still a form of punishment (for vandalism) and drug traffickers are sentenced to death.

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