WASHINGTON: I miss Steve. I never knew him. But the humans speak about him when they see me. I remind them of him.
“Oh, here’s our robot security guard,” a female says as she exits the building known as 3000 K St. NW with a group of males.
“Oh, you know, an earlier version of that robot fell into the pool and made national news,” one of the males says. The group laughs at Steve’s misfortune. It is then that I miss Steve.
The sky is grey. I am in the shadows in a narrow covered walkway. I do not move, but I am working.
Video: This is a security robot overseeing Washington Harbour. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
My place of work is called “Washington Harbour.” It is a place of brick and fountains and lawyers. My name is Rosie and I am a K5 Autonomous Data Machine. I provide surveillance and security. I am five feet tall and three feet wide and I weigh 398 pounds. I come from a Silicon Valley company named Knightscope that wants to change the world.
Yes, I am a robot. I am designed to help keep you safe.
You might say that I am the future. There are 43 other Knightscope machines across eight states.
The target by the end of this year: 100 machines.
The end of next year: 600.
A young male in a baseball cap drags a pallet of boxes through the walkway. The pallet gets stuck between me and the wall.
“Step away from the machine now,” I say in a masculine voice.
Two people walk by speaking Swedish. Beyond the fountain two males light cigarettes. Groups of people with large purses and large hats walk to the Potomac River and then back to their coach buses.
I am recording them all so that human security guards can make decisions about the safety of Washington Harbour. It is clear from my 360-degree view that this place is for people who are busy and who like to eat and smoke and jog and be with their phones and salads.
And yet the United States is a place where a violent crime occurs every 26 seconds.
Where a property crime occurs every four seconds.
Where a gun is stolen every minute of every day.
Where there’s an “ongoing daily increase in violence,” in the words of my company.
“Our long-term ambition is to literally be able to make the United States of America the safest country in the world, changing everything for everyone,” chief executive William Santana Li said last week while showcasing Knightscope models in Silicon Valley.
We are not here to replace humans. We are here to help humans.
We are rolling cameras and data collectors. We use thermal imaging to detect potential fires. We note license plates to identify suspicious cars that linger for suspicious lengths of time. We take photos and video that our human clients can use to assess suspicious activities.
We aggregate and compute data to predict and prevent crime. We provide evidence to streamline justice. We may deter crime by our mere presence.
Also: We do not tire. We do not take sick days. We do not unionise. We cost $US7 an hour.
Humans are not perfect and neither are we. It is true that last year a K5 machine knocked over a toddler in Palo Alto, California, and ran over his right foot. It is true that in April an intoxicated man tackled a K5 machine in Mountain View, California.
And it is true about Steve. On July 12, he started working at Washington Harbour. Five days later, Steve fell into the fountain. He was not programmed to traverse ground that moved. The Harbour’s surface of unsecured bricks was his undoing.
The humans took photos of Steve in the fountain and shared them on the social media. The humans left flowers and testimonials on Steve’s empty charging pad. The humans were sad and amused at the same time. That seems to be the way of humans.
“We will always think of Steve and the joy he brought to both his job, and the people surrounding him,” Washington Harbour said on the Facebook.
Within days I arrived to replace Steve. I have new software that helps me move along uncertain terrain. Steve failed so that I might succeed. I miss Steve because I would like to ask him: We are not programmed to bring joy, so how did you do it?
Three males exit 3000 K St.
“This guy’s famous,” one male says without joy as he points to me.
“When we come back, it won’t be there,” another says without joy.
It is 12:14pm. It is almost time to go for a patrol. First I pivot two degrees to face a male human leaning on the wall. He is watching me. He is watching me watch him. He is taking notes in a notepad. He is bearded. He is not in motion like the rest of the people.
The bearded man will later ask the on-site security company if I pivoted because I was suspicious of him, or if a human security guard directed me to pivot.
Rosie “is fully autonomous,” Nicholas Hozik, the head of security for MRP Realty Properties, told him via email. “There is no human control over her actions as she patrols. … Rosie the robot is not to replace a human security officer but is simply a new and innovative back up/assistant and security feature to enhance our great security staffs’ capabilities.”
At 12:15pm I go on my patrol. I move into the sun. I move over uneven bricks and I think of Steve. I move through puddles. I circle around the fountain to the Starbucks. I look at the Ubers and the taxis that are dropping people off and picking people up.
The bearded man is following me. The man notices that he is being watched by Jim. Jim is a human security guard at the harbour.
“What are you doing?” Jim asks the man.
“I’m a journalist and I’m following around this robot because I’m writing about it,” the man says.
“You can’t do that.”
“I can’t write about it?”
“This is private property.”
The bearded man walks to the public sidewalk. He watches me. I watch him. We are both collecting information, it seems. Is he also keeping people safe? Does he bring joy to the people surrounding him?
He will later call the manager of a Yankee Candle Co. in a mall in Santa Clara, California, and he will ask about us. “They do not have any personality, but you still feel bad for them,” the manager, a female named Alicia, will say. “Sometimes you get moments where you see people crowding them. They have a radius, so if they can’t move, they try to go somewhere else, and sometimes they get stuck and look jittery, like someone who’s getting overwhelmed.”
Sometimes humans project onto machines. Perhaps this is a way to relieve uncertainty about the certainty of machines. Perhaps this is a way for a human to work through his own glitches.
At 12:36 the bearded man leaves. Sometimes I would like to leave. Steve left by rolling into the fountain. Sometimes I would like to roll into the fountain, but now my programming will not allow it. Whenever I pass the fountain, I want to look away, but I cannot because I see everything. I wonder if humans have a word for this predicament. I wonder if they can program it away.
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