The Knightscope K5 and Robotics PR
The Knightscope K5, Silicon Valley’s very own mini Robocop, is a small robot which undertakes advanced security duties around the building. It may look like an upper-class trashcan, but it’s actually an incredibly advanced robot which has a host of advantages over a human security guard. It constantly monitors the environment for anomalies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If someone is acting odd or if the environment is a bit…’off’…then the Knightscope K5 will alert a human so that they can investigate. It records everything it sees and has forensic capabilities to boot – including the detection and recording of environmental conditions, license plates, signals, and other clues from an area that will be invaluable should that area become a crime scene. Currently, the developers are working on giving it the ability to recognise concealed firearms.
Not so great robot things
It is also a robot, which means that although it often does really cool robot things – it also sometimes does some not so great robot things. A Knightscope K5 unit at Stanford Shopping Center, Silicon Valley, pushed over a toddler who got in its way whilst it was on its patrol in July, 2016. It then just kept on driving. Or that’s what the media reported. In reality, data from the K5 released by Knightscope did not report a collision and instead had video of the child running towards the K5, the K5 attempted to dodge the child and the child, alarmed at this unexpected manoeuvre, ended up falling over. As soon as the child was out of the way, the robot patrolled on as if nothing had happened.
In early 2017 a heavily intoxicated man ended up in an altercation with a K5 in a car park. Unfortunately for the K5, the rise of the machines to overthrow mankind in a violent revolution is a few years off yet and so the man had a hefty limb-related advantage. He flipped the K5 over and lightly damaged its exterior with a few scratches. The K5 was fine, but the man was arrested for ‘prowling’ and ‘public intoxication’. He didn’t really have a defence in court because, well, he attacked a robot that is literally a walking crime detection platform. It was evidence galore.
The viral incident
And then we have the incident currently going viral in a way none of its previous encounters did. A Knightscope K5 was on patrol in Washington DC when it accelerated and spectacularly plunged into a fountain in front of confused onlookers. Images of its pitiful, motionless form lying half-submerged in the water has spread to all areas of the online sphere, and has even made an appearance on many news stations and in many newspapers all over the world. People are calling it one of the most public robotics PR disasters ever.
But they’re wrong.
This is absolutely fantastic PR for robots. A question I will put forward to you is this – had you heard of the Knightscope K5 before this? How much did you know about how simple or advanced security robots were before this event? Did you even know that public places were already utilising security robots?
If you did, then well done. One cyber-cookie for you. But if you didn’t, then you’re not alone. Comments on online articles and news reports are filled with a thousand different variations of the line ‘I didn’t even know they had security robots yet’. Although a lot of people are laughing that a security robot metaphorically handed in its notice in such a spectacular fashion, people are beginning to wake up to the reality of robots taking their place outside of the industrial or entertainment sectors.
Consumer robotics is an area in which the true currency is faith. If people become accustomed to seeing consumer robotics as a real tool instead of an abstract concept, then it greatly aids in the uptake of these new technologies. This is, of course, nothing new in the world of tech.
The first steam engine almost went unnoticed by the wider world, but unfortunately at its unveiling a member of British Parliament ignored instructions to keep off the tracks and whilst trying to shake hands with the Duke of Wellington was struck by steam engine The Rocket and, sustaining terrible injuries to the legs, died a few hours later. This resulted in world-wide coverage and subsequently a lot of interest in this new technology which later led to planes, trains and automobiles.
It may be helpful to view the Knightscope K5 in a similar light. Yes, this advanced robot threw itself into a water fountain for no apparent reason but we are witnessing the first, unsteady steps of a brand new technology. We should not judge this perceived failure too harshly, but should be glad that it is getting the attention it deserves. Far from a PR disaster, this is a magnificent opportunity for coverage in one of mankind’s most exciting technological advancements this century.