Singapore boosts social distancing – with a robot dog

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Leaves crunch underfoot as Spot walks across the park, back straight as a table, striding like a soldier.

A grassy field surrounded by trees beckons. But Spot is focused on the asphalt path ahead, where a few joggers and cyclists set off for a socially distant sun.

For memory:

7:11 a.m., May. 14, 2020An earlier version of this story misstated the owner of Boston Dynamics. This is the Japanese conglomerate Softbank, not the parent company of Google Alphabet.

A cyclist in a brimmed hat walks past. Locate the pipes, not with a bark, but with a recorded message.

“Let’s keep Singapore healthy,” said a woman’s voice, polite but firm. “For your own safety and for those around you, please stand at least three feet apart. Thank you.”

Spot, clearly, is no ordinary squirrel hunter dog. It is an agile, four-legged and terribly canine robot that Singapore has deployed to help enforce distancing measures in the second month of a partial coronavirus lockdown.

Spot the robot running through Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore on May 8, the first day of a two-week trial to aid the government’s social distancing efforts.

(GovTech Singapore)

Developed by Boston Dynamics of Waltham, Mass., Square is one of the most advanced trading robots in the world, last seen doors openning, carrying a truck or dance on Bruno Mars in a list of fascinating promotional videos. His two-week pilot in a park here is considered a test of how machines and artificial intelligence could help reduce human contact in public spaces as some governments begin relax social restrictions.

“The world is watching to see what happens with the Spot trial,” said David De Cremer, Belgian researcher and director of Center on AI Technology for Humanity at the National University of Singapore. “It’s a glimpse into the future.”

The semi-autonomous Spot, which can walk up to 3 mph over rough terrain, detect obstacles with 360-degree vision, and rise up after it falls, captures the promise and terror of a mechanized future in which robots assist human tasks – or replace them altogether. His roaring joints and strangely precise prowl inspired an episode of the dystopian British television series “Black Mirror”, which envisioned a breed of human robot hunter dogs.

Spot is seen in a 2018 Boston Dynamics video.

When Spot became available for rental last September, its first applications included inspecting construction sites and utility facilities, congested environments dangerous to humans. It also has a three month trial as the Massachusetts State Police Bomb Squad “observation device”.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic forces companies to reconsider even routine human interactions – exercising in a park, sneaking down a grocery store aisle, getting your vital signs checked in a hospital – machines are pressed into a new range of tasks.

In several countries, aerial drones carry medical samples, spray disinfectant and deliver food and medicine. A fleet of Danish robots on wheels are stationed in hospitals across China, disinfection of parts using ultraviolet light.

Last month, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston began using Spot to screen patients outside the entrance, using an iPad mounted on the robot that displays a doctor inside the facility. The trial limited the exposure of medical personnel to infection and helped preserve protective gear, said Michael Perry, vice president of business development for Boston Dynamics.

“It’s a validation of the basic principle of robotics: you take an environment where collecting data or interacting with a physical space is too dangerous for a person, and you put a robot in its place to do a task. simple and repetitive, ”Perry said.

Singapore, a thriving island nation of 5.7 million people struggling with one of highest COVID-19 records in Asia, uses a fleet of 30 drones to monitor crowd levels in public parks, which remained open during a lockdown that began in early April.

Thousands of “safe-distance ambassadors” have also spread to parks, shopping malls, markets and other public spaces.

Their presence was not always well received: last week, a parks officer was stabbed in an altercation with a man who illegally cut plants without wearing a mask. The officer recovers after the surgery; her attacker was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Singapore officials said the purpose of using Spot was to “reduce the manpower required for park patrols and minimize physical contact between staff, volunteer ambassadors and park visitors. “.

Spot the robot in Singapore

Spot the walks in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore this month.

(Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty Images)

Painted in Safety Yellow – the color of construction vehicles – the robot is accompanied by a parks officer at the 150-acre Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Her recorded message reminds people to maintain social distancing.

Cameras installed on his body will help estimate the number of visitors to the park, but officials said they could not recognize individuals and would not collect any personal data.

If the trial is successful, officials said they would consider deploying Spot for longer hours and in other parks. A second Spot robot has also been in use since last month to deliver drugs to an isolation facility housing thousands of COVID-19 patients.

Spot was greeted with a mixture of wonder and concern. One video showed a real dog watching Spot with apparent confusion.

Critics outside of Singapore described it as “scary” and “scary”. A tweeted: “I can’t wait to be tasered for non-compliance.”

But Spot isn’t driven by artificial intelligence – most of its movement is controlled by remote control, and it’s designed to avoid anything in its way higher than a foot. The approximately 130 robots in use around the world – leased to customers for several thousand dollars a month – come with agreements that they are not used to harm or intimidate, according to Boston Dynamics, which is owned by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.

Singapore is a fertile testing ground: its ruling party, in power for more than half a century, enjoys great public confidence, encourages technological innovation and muzzles dissent. The government has developed an app to track people who have been in contact with patients with COVID-19 and is considering making its use mandatory, dismissing concerns about official surveillance.

“I think the balance between social interests and civil rights is shifted in an emergency to favor technologies that can help deal with the emergency,” said Kristen thomasen, an expert in robotics law and policy at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. “When that happens, however, one of the most crucial things to look for is a clear indication from the government and the imposition of limits on the use of technology.”

Engineers in Singapore are already designing algorithms that could make Spot more sophisticated, De Cremer said. One idea is to record the distances between park visitors and the duration of their interactions to determine if people are together in a group or if strangers pass on the grass.

It could help build social distancing, but over time it could also teach a robot to read some physical aspects of human relationships.

This is just one of the ways the pandemic will serve as a laboratory for the near future of machines, De Cremer said.

“These trends will accelerate,” he said. “And decisions about the limits and limits of robotics and AI are going to depend on a company’s values.”


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