Singapore puts Robocop on the streets: Patrol bots blast warnings at people engaging in ‘undesirable social behaviours’ including standing too close together – sparking concerns about citizen privacy

  • The ‘Xavier’ robots are on wheels and are equipped with seven cameras
  • They patrol the streets, and issue warnings for ‘undesirable social behaviours’
  • This includes smoking in prohibited areas and standing in groups of more than 5
  • Singapore is frequently criticised for curbing civil liberties and people are accustomed to tight controls

Singapore is trialling patrol robots that blast warnings at people engaging in ‘undesirable social behaviour’, adding to an arsenal of surveillance technology in the tightly controlled city-state that is fuelling privacy concerns.

The government’s latest surveillance devices are dubbed Xavier, and issue warnings to the public for certain behaviours.

This includes smoking in prohibited areas, improperly parking bicycles, and breaching coronavirus social-distancing rules. 

Singapore is frequently criticised for curbing civil liberties and people are accustomed to tight controls, but there is still growing unease at intrusive tech.

Singapore is trialling patrol robots that blast warnings at people engaging in ‘undesirable social behaviour’

The government’s latest surveillance devices are robots on wheels, with seven cameras, that issue warnings to the public and detect ‘undesirable social behaviour’ 

Behaviours you could get ‘blasted’ for 

The government’s surveillance devices will blast warnings if they detect the following ‘undesirable behaviours: 

– Smoking in prohibited areas 

– Illegal hawking

– Improperly parked bicycles within HDB Hub

– Congregation of more than 5 people 

– Motorised active mobility devices and motorcycles on footpaths

The robtos are on wheels, and are equipped with seven cameras. 

During a recent patrol, one of the ‘Xavier’ robots wove its way through a housing estate and stopped in front of a group of elderly residents watching a chess match.

‘Please keep one-metre distancing, please keep to five persons per group,’ a robotic voice blared out, as a camera on top of the machine trained its gaze on them.

During a three-week trial in September, two robots were deployed to patrol the housing estate and a shopping centre.

‘It reminds me of Robocop,’ said Frannie Teo, a 34-year-old research assistant, who was walking through the mall.

It brings to mind a ‘dystopian world of robots… I’m just a bit hesitant about that kind of concept’, she added.

Digital rights activist Lee Yi Ting said the devices were the latest way Singaporeans were being watched.

‘It all contributes to the sense people… need to watch what they say and what they do in Singapore to a far greater extent than they would in other countries,’ she told AFP.

But the government defended its use of robots, saying they were not being used to identify or take action against offenders during the tech’s trial, and were needed to address a labour crunch as the population ages.

‘The workforce is actually shrinking,’ said Ong Ka Hing, from the government agency that developed the Xavier robots, adding they could help reduce the number of officers needed for foot patrols.

The island of about 5.5 million people has 90,000 police cameras, a number set to double by 2030, and facial recognition tech – which helps authorities pick out faces in a crowd – may be installed on lampposts across the city.

There was a rare public backlash this year when authorities admitted coronavirus contract-tracing data collected by an official system had been accessed by police. The government later passed legislation to limit its use.

But critics say the city-state’s laws generally put few limitations on government surveillance, and Singaporeans have little control over what happens to the data collected.

‘There are no privacy law constraints on what the government can or cannot do,’ said Indulekshmi Rajeswari, a privacy lawyer from Singapore who is now based in Germany.

WILL YOUR JOB BE TAKEN BY A ROBOT? PHYSICAL JOBS ARE AT THE GREATEST RISK

Physical jobs in predictable environments, including machine-operators and fast-food workers, are the most likely to be replaced by robots.

Management consultancy firm McKinsey, based in New York, focused on the amount of jobs that would be lost to automation, and what professions were most at risk.

The report said collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines. 

This could displace large amounts of labour – for instance, in mortgages, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing.

Conversely, jobs in unpredictable environments are least are risk.

The report added: ‘Occupations such as gardeners, plumbers, or providers of child- and eldercare – will also generally see less automation by 2030, because they are technically difficult to automate and often command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.’

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