ADVERTISEMENT

NEW YORK – The night watchman of the future is 5 feet tall, weighs 300 pounds, looks a lot like R2-D2 – without the whimsy – and will cost just $6.25 an hour.

Knightscope, a company in California, has developed a mobile robot, known as the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, as a safety and security tool for corporations, as well as for schools and neighborhoods.

“We founded Knightscope after what happened at Sandy Hook,” said William Santana Li, a co-founder of the company, now based in Sunnyvale, Calif. “You are never going to have an armed officer in every school.”

But what is for some a technology-laden route to safer communities and schools is to others an entry point to an Orwellian, post-privacy world.

“This is like R2-D2’s evil twin,” said Marc Rotenberg, the director of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, a privacy rights group based in Washington.

And the addition of such a machine to the labor market could force David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, to rethink his theory about how technology wrecks the middle class.

The minimum wage in the United States is $7.25, and $8 in California. Coming in substantially under those costs, Knightscope’s robot watchman service raises questions about whether artificial intelligence and robotics technologies are beginning to assault both the top and the bottom of the work force as well.

The K5 is the work of Li, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, and Stacy Dean Stephens, a former police officer in Texas. They gained some attention in June for their failed attempt to manufacture a high-tech police cruiser at Carbon Motors Corp. in Indiana.

Knightscope plans to trot out K5 at a news event on Thursday – a debut that is certain to touch off a new round of debate, not just about the effect of automation, but also about how a new generation of mobile robots affects privacy.

The co-founders have chosen to position K5 not as a job killer, but as a system that will upgrade the role of security guard, even if fewer humans are employed.

“We want to give the humans the ability to do the strategic work,” said Li in a recent telephone interview, describing a highly skilled analyst who might control a herd of security robots.

The robot, which can be seen in a promotional video, is still very much a work in progress. The system will have a video camera, thermal imaging sensors, a laser range finder and a microphone. It will not, at least for now, include advanced features like facial recognition, which is still being perfected.

K5 also raises questions about mass surveillance, which has already set off intense debate with the expansion of closed-circuit television systems on city streets.

For the moment, the system is unarmed, and it is certain to become the target of teenagers who will undoubtedly get a thrill from knocking the robot over. Li said he believed this was not an insurmountable challenge, given the weight, size and video-recording ability of the bots. Rotenberg said a greater challenge would be community opposition. He acknowledged, however, that K5’s looks were benign enough.

“It doesn’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said.