Unrest in Singapore streets is being caused by new robots monitoring for ‘anti-social behavior’

In Singapore, there are new sheriffs in town, and many residents are concerned. The robots, dubbed “Xavier,” are outfitted with seven cameras that can detect “undesirable social behavior,” such as incorrectly parking your bike, smoking in an unapproved place, or failing to respect social boundaries.

These machines, according to project manager Michael Lim, are a new weapon against insecurity. “If the robot is present and something happens, the people in the control room will be able to watch what happened,” he explained. In September, the robots patrolled a housing estate and a shopping center as part of a three-week trial.

So far, they’ve created a schism in the public’s opinion. “I think it’s beneficial from a security standpoint, to safeguard society’s safety, so if anything happens, you still have the tape to trackback,” engineer Fu Suan Kian told AFP.

“It reminds me of Robocop,” Frannie Teo, a 34-year-old research assistant, said as she walked through the mall. “It conjures up images of a gloomy world populated by robots… I’m simply a little hesitant about such a concept “she continued.

Singapore: An overly secure nation?

According to AFP, Singapore is routinely chastised for restricting civil liberties, and while residents have become accustomed to tight controls, there is rising disquiet over intrusive technology. Surveillance technology has been placed in the streets across the strictly restricted city-state of the 5.5 million-strong island.

It already has 90,000 police cameras in place, with that number expected to treble by 2030, and it looks to be on the hunt for cutting-edge technology, such as facial recognition systems mounted on lampposts, to assist authorities in identifying faces in crowds. The devices, according to digital rights campaigner Lee Yi Ting, are the latest way Singaporeans being monitored.

“It all adds up to the notion that people in Singapore have to be significantly more careful about what they say and do than they would in other nations,” she said. “The extent to which we are visibly surveilled makes (the robot) dystopian.
But I think what’s more dystopian for me is that it’s become normalized, and people aren’t really reacting to it “..

The government’s response to the patrolling robots is motivated by the need to confront a looming labor shortfall as the population ages. “The workforce is actually diminishing,” said Ong Ka Hing of the government agency that created the Xavier robots, who added that they might help cut the number of cops needed for foot patrols.

Singapore isn’t the first place where law enforcement has turned to robots. In Honolulu, Hawaii, police have begun deploying a robot dog to take the temperatures of homeless individuals. Authorities say it’s a safer technique to screen for COVID-19 symptoms.

However, these robots have not been well received by the general public, with local civil rights organizations criticizing their deployment as dehumanizing for some of Honolulu’s most vulnerable people.

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