Entrepreneur behind K5 surveillance robot faces down critics

Entrepreneur behind K5 surveillance robot faces down critics

Published 27 January 2014 16:08, Updated 29 January 2014 09:29

USA Today



The K5 robot is presented as a potential police aid. Its built-in laser sweeps 270 degrees to photographically map the area it is monitoring in 3D.

A visitor to Knightscope, a seven-person robotics start-up with a bold and controversial vision for crime fighting, is as likely to be greeted by a robot as he is a human.

Standing 5 feet (1.52 metres) tall – which gives the K5 its name – and weighing 136 kilograms, the white-domed cylinder on wheels zips around desks with ease, its coloured lights and general shape seeming instantly familiar in an R2-D2-meets-Wall-E way.

But the robot’s friendly vibe masks the serious intent of the company’s CEO, William Li: to develop an ever-growing army of K5s that would roam shopping malls, corporate campuses and other public places with a mission to collect and analyse data, and tip off law enforcement to potential issues.

“Giving police tools to be safer is a good thing; just think of K9 (dog) units,” says Li, 43, who, before diving headlong into entrepreneurship, raced up Ford Motor’s ladders while in his 20s, eventually becoming its director of mergers and acquisitions. “Is roaming a mall parking lot at 3am really the best use of an officer’s time? We don’t think so.”

Knightscope unveiled its first K5 in early December. Its built-in laser sweeps 270 degrees to photographically map the area it’s monitoring in 3D. Four mid-mounted cameras feature optical-character recognition that can scan up to 1500 licence plates per minute. The K5 can travel at up to 29 km/h but will typically cruise around at 8 km/h using sensor technology to avoid hitting people and things.

The company’s next move is to outfit a dozen beta customers with a dozen K5s each for a test run. Li says the plan is not to sell the robots so much as offer a full-service product much as what alarm companies offer. Television monitors set up at the company’s modest office space in the Plug and Play Tech Centre – where PayPal and other giants first got off the ground – offer mock-ups of facial, thermal and infrared data provided by a K5.

Pricing is set to run “$US1000 [$1151] for a month of eight-hour daily shifts,” he says, adding that since most customers have expressed interest in 24-hour surveillance, the robot’s policing fee pencils out to $US6.25 an hour. “Our aim is to cut the crime rate by 50 per cent in a geo-fenced area, which would increase housing values and safety while lowering insurance costs. If we can do that, I think every mayor will be calling us.”

Refinements to the current robot are under way, notably a human to machine interface. “There’s no reason the K5 shouldn’t see you passing by and greet you or whistle as it wheels along,” says Li. “It’s the friendly robot that’s trying to help.”

Countering criticism on privacy and safety

But the K5’s whistling demeanour aside, not everyone is thrilled with an autonomous data-collection machine with brains but no soul. Those critics encapsulate the hurdles Li and his small team – which includes marketing chief and former Dallas police officer, Stacy Stephens – will face in making their robot ubiquitous.

“Clearly, this kind of surveillance technology has an unbounded capacity to collect personal information that a single patrol officer doesn’t,” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Centre.

“These are the same concerns we’re facing with CCTV [closed-circuit television] and Google’s mapping cars. Laws need to be updated to acknowledge these technologies, and companies in turn need to act responsibly,” he says. “To just say ‘get used to it’ is not an answer.”

That isn’t quite Li’s answer. Rather, he grows impassioned while tossing out a series of rhetorical questions.

“Do you feel violated by the ATM machine or by a guard frisking you at a sporting event?” he asks, leaning forward. “I’ll tell you what puts people on edge – getting shot at.”

Li says he was looking for inspiration after a failed attempt to market improved police cars to law enforcement when tragedy struck at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the US. “That infuriated me,” he says of the shooting in which 20 children were killed. “There are 7 billion people on the planet, and we’ll soon have a few billion more, and law enforcement is not going to scale at the same rate; we literally can’t afford it.”

The other spectre raised by the K5 is job destruction, at least at the level of private security officers. Li counters that these are “miserable jobs with turnover of 400 per cent,” and suggests that perhaps its time to turn those shifts over to robots.

“We went from the industrial age to the information age and we’re at the beginning of the robotics revolution,” he says. “With big data and predictive analytics, we might be able to avoid some of these terrible tragedies we seem to read about every day.”

As executive director of the National Association of Police Organisations, Bill Johnson isn’t so keen on the notion of roving robots replacing humans scouts.

“There is no substitute for human beings when it comes to rapidly analysing information and making a swift decision,” he says. “Technology is useful, but it can’t be a substitute.”

Johnson also cautions that the political climate today could slow the K5’s march. “We have a democracy,” he says. “We want to be policed, but not unreasonably surveilled.”

Li is practised at addressing such criticisms, since they come often. His repeated point is that a K5 robot would act in concert with law enforcement to help them police more intelligently based on the robot’s data. When it comes to privacy concerns, he offers a scenario that is both troubling and intriguing.

“What if we had K5s in a community and made those cameras and what they see available to everyone online?” he says. “If you’re a criminal about to break into someone’s house or car, you might be watched as you do it, or at the very least have your actions recorded for everyone to see. So maybe you won’t do it.”

Listening to Li with utter silence is the K5 prototype. It’s hard to describe how its presence makes you feel – unease comes to mind. Perhaps with a pair of emotive eyes like Wall-E’s, things would be different.

But regardless of how the K5’s life unfolds, Li has produced something that is forcing him to boldly go where many roboticists fear to tread.

“What built this country? Well, it wasn’t fear,” he says with a smile. “Is this thing foolproof? No. But I’m tired of people talking. My feeling was, there’s a problem out there so let’s do something.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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