South Korea, one of the hopefuls at the head of robotic development has introduced several robotic sentries that look more like toys than actual guards in one prison. The guards, which are being distributed in the city of Pohang are part of an effort to reduce the work load on prison guards to ensure that fewer guards can prevent violence and suicides while in the prison walls. Is this the candy coated future of mechanized law enforcement?
The robots, which are striped yellow look more like the main protagonist in a children’s film than prison guards. And yet the characters beside them will be criminals who are in need of constant supervision. Under constant threat of suicides, violence, and escape attempts the prison is in dire straits looking for answers to this basic problem of enforcing the law within prisons. The robots are not armed, and will not be used to harm prisoners or detain them in any way, though one need only look into the past of military robotics to understand that future projects may evolve much the same way with remote drones first starting with surveillance and eventually moving into immobilizing targets.
While these are not the first drones to ever be used for guard duty, this is one of the early uses in the realm of law enforcement on the ground in prisons. And one of the elements that certainly sticks out for these strange robots is how different they look than the more inhuman sleek looking hunting robots such as those found in the military. You may recall the military’s SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System) created by Foster and Miller for the US Army. These vehicles with their tank treads and various weapons attachments were designed to be intimidating without a cuddly exterior. This is certainly not the case with the far less intimidating South Korean robots designed to protect inmates and guards alike. But why is so much care being taken in the appearance of these devices? Other systems like the ANDROS and the Packbot look basically like small tanks with metal exteriors and tank treads. The South Korean robots are being designed to look like they’re made from plastic.
The aesthetics of robots have always been made with the users in mind. In this case, the developers may have been aware of the fear involved with working and living in close proximity to robots. As a result, they may have attempted to make the robots look more toy-like to appease the fears of inmates. And if you look closely at it, the bulky robotic bodies do make sense for more practical reasons as well. The broad neck, shelled surface, and large wheels all suggest that the robot is designed to take a few hits without being damaged permanently. We should take a moment to note, however, that these inmates will be some of the first humans ever to be on the lookout for a free roaming machine in close proximity as a potential adversary long-term. Will they meet it with open arms? Or with fear? Given the fact that it is a prison, fear seems the more likely of the two options.