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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Singapore has deployed robot police officers to discipline citizens. The danger is the cop inside people’s heads

The point of surveillance, however, isn't really to catch a criminal in the act. It is, in fact, to make sure that people always act as if they are being watched.

By: Editorial |
Updated: October 7, 2021 9:43:09 am
The 'Xavier' robocops blast warnings at denizens engaging in “socially undesirable behaviour”.

For the lovers of efficient, consumerist authoritarianism, Singapore is indeed a paradise. The streets are clean, the restaurants swanky and the worldly cosmopolitanism is complemented by a “strong” state. There are no privacy laws to speak of, so the objections by some citizens to the 90,000 police cameras — set to double by 2030 — carry little bite. But cameras, jail time and crippling fines alone are not enough to perfect a well-ordered city-state Utopia. There is advanced facial recognition software on lampposts in addition to the cameras. And to perfect the panopticon, Singapore now has its very own Robocop.

Singapore has initiated a pilot programme in which robots on wheels, each outfitted with seven cameras and microphones, animated by advanced software, are patrolling residential areas and shopping complexes. The ‘Xavier’ robocops blast warnings at denizens engaging in “socially undesirable behaviour”. The list of prohibited acts that can lead to a tongue-lashing from an inanimate object include smoking in public, flouting Covid-19 norms and parking your bicycles improperly. For many, there is nothing disturbing about the imposition of discipline using robots — it usually takes a sci-fi fan to spot the impending machine-led apocalypse. And, the acts the Xavier robots are shouting at people for are similar to those that annoy the over-zealous office bearers of housing societies in urban India as well.

The point of surveillance, however, isn’t really to catch a criminal in the act. It is, in fact, to make sure that people always act as if they are being watched. The robots, like the cameras and facial recognition software, aren’t meant to make you afraid of the police. They are meant to place a policeman in your head. And, perhaps, in what is a sign of things to come, the Singapore government describes its surveillance ambitions as turning the city-state into a “smart nation”.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 7, 2021 under the title ‘Robocop’.

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