The US government is deploying robot dogs to the Mexico border. Seriously?

As if the border isn’t surveilled and militarized enough, the Department of Homeland Security wants to go full Black Mirror

Are we all doomed to live in Charlie Brooker’s techno-dystopia? In Metalhead, an episode from season four of his famed Netflix show Black Mirror, a woman navigates an austere post-apocalyptic landscape while running for her life from a murderous robot dog. What makes the mechanized beast in the show particularly frightening is the lethal combination of the single-mindedness of a computer program with the extreme ferocity of an angry, feral dog.

But it’s just TV, right? Not exactly. The military, technological, security and political classes in this country appear united in their desire to make robot dogs part of our future, and we should all be worried.

The latest example came on 1 February, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a press release titled “Robot Dogs Take Another Step Towards Deployment at the Border”. DHS dressed up their statement with the kind of adorable language made to warm the hearts of dog lovers everywhere. “The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is offering US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) a helping hand (or ‘paw’),” read the release. Isn’t that cute? A picture of the “four-legged ground drone” accompanied the release, and the “Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicle”, as it’s called, looked remarkably (and scarily) similar to the monstrous quadrupeds seen in the Black Mirror episode. But let’s not judge based on appearance. The real issue is that we keep rushing to militarized and technological solutions to what ultimately are human and political questions, creating more problems along the way.

These particular robot dogs are made by Ghost Robotics, which claims that its 100lb machine was “bred” to scale “all types of natural terrain including sand, rocks and hills, as well as human-built environments, like stairs”. Each robot dog is outfitted with a bevy of sensors and able to transmit real-time video and information feeds. The devices are not yet in operation on the US-Mexico border, but a testing and evaluation program is under way in El Paso, Texas.

To listen to DHS, it all sounds so utterly charming and so very next-gen – until you realize that what we’re talking about is the further encroachment of government surveillance on our daily lives. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, “people who live along the border are some of the most heavily surveilled people in the United States. A massive amalgamation of federal, state and local law enforcement and national security agencies are flying dronesputting up cameras and just generally attempting to negate civil liberties – capturing the general goings-on of people who live and work in proximity to the border.”

Then there’s the question of lethal force. These specific ground drones may not be armed, but Ghost Robotics is already infamous for the combination of robot dog and robot rifle. In 2021, small arms manufacturer Sword International (must these companies choose such dystopian names?) outfitted a robot dog from Ghost Robotics with a custom-made weapon, called a “special purpose unmanned rifle” or Spur. This darling invention was unveiled at the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army.

Incidentally, US policy not only does not “prohibit the development or employment” of killer robots (officially known as “lethal autonomous weapon systems,” or Laws) but also opposes any international preemptive ban. Meanwhile, as the Congressional Research Service notes, Israel has already exported what many consider a lethal autonomous weapon system to Chile, China, India, South Korea and Turkey. We’re fast running out of time for robust international dialogue on this issue.

Domestically, the short history of the use of the robot dogs in our cities is also troubling. The Honolulu police department used about $150,000 of pandemic funding to buy their robot dog, which they then used to scan the eyes and take the temperatures of unhoused people to check for symptoms of Covid. The practice raised the alarms of advocates who said the practice was fundamentally dehumanizing. Needless to say, no housed person was treated that way.

And after public outcry in 2021, the New York police department returned its $94,200 robot dog, Digidog. That robot was deployed to a home invasion in the Bronx and to a tense situation in a public housing building in Manhattan, attracting the angry notice of New Yorkers. Once again, many Black and brown New Yorkers felt over-policed, over-surveilled and under-resourced.

“You can’t give me a living wage, you can’t raise a minimum wage, you can’t give me affordable housing; I’m working hard and I can’t get paid leave, I can’t get affordable childcare,” said Representative Jamaal Bowman in a video he posted to Twitter. “Instead we got money, taxpayer money, going to robot dogs?”

Bowman is hardly alone. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized both the NYPD’s robot dog in 2021 and the recent news of robot dogs at the border. “It’s shameful how both parties fight tooth + nail to defend their ability to pump endless public money into militarization,” she recently tweeted. “From tanks in police depts to corrupt military contracts, funding this violence is bipartisan + non-controversial, yet healthcare + housing isn’t. It’s BS.”

She’s right, of course, as is Bowman. Where exactly are our priorities?

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Moustafa Bayoumi