Here Comes RoboDog

It’s sent out to make sure that when you’re out to walk in the park, or jog, you’re not pulling up to the bumper in front of you. But does it bark?


Robot dog Lima 002The robot dog seen doing its rounds at Bishan park

By Low Teck Mee

We do have a knack for doing things to get noticed. These days it isn’t enough, for example, that we retain the title of the World’s Best Airport for Changi (the now empty Jewel, no doubt, an added reason for the clinch), we need to be the World’s First Country to Deploy a Robot Dog to patrol our parks as part of the hi-tech effort to fight COVID-19. Identified as Lima 002 on its body and produced by the American engineering and robotics design outfit Boston Dynamics, this headless, four-legged creature seemed to me destined to be the next Merlion, only way more mobile.

NParks’ deployment of this creature in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park has naturally created a lot of press for SG, still in the very midst of bringing COVID-19 infection numbers down and making sure you keep your safe distance from me. But when it gets a roughly 90-sec mention in A Late Show with Stephen Colbert at Home, we seemed to be heady with pride, just as we were when our pandemic case detection efforts were deemed “gold standard” by a Harvard University study. The gold has now lost its sheen, but something else looks poised to shine forth. “Robot dog enforcement—that must be so cool,” Mr Colbert enthused, before showing a footage from Black Mirror, the 2011 British television series (available on Netflix, if you are curious) as a mistaken-identity joke.

In that 2017 season-four episode called Metalhead, which, interestingly, was filmed in black and white, we follow a speak-not-quite-much character Bella in a world that appears to be coming to a horrific, death-galore end. What’s frightening for me is Bella’s harrowing run from robot dogs gone amok. Series creator Charlie Brooker admitted to Entertainment Weekly that the mechanical creatures in the show was actually inspired by the Boston Dynamics canid that goes by the innocuous name Spot.

Metalhead robot dogThe robot beast in the Black Mirror episode Metalhead

In Metalhead, the beasts in question looked more like deformed turtles with faceted shells and long, super nimble legs. As they are so agile and so willing to kill upon sighting humans, they look terrifying, more so as they roam and slay in a world so barren and damaged that it looks positively hopeless. Black Mirror has been described as a “future shock” anthology, and if the Metalhead episode foretold a hereafter, possibly already destroyed by a virus (the backstory is not revealed, so I allow my imagination to fill in), I shudder to imagine what prelude N-Parks’ sudden deployment (also referred to as “trial”) of the Lima 002 might suggest. Stephen Colbert concluded with, “I gotta say, people would be more receptive if the dog was cuter, cuddlier, and less dystopian.” Ah, Mr Colbert, this, you see, isn’t Japan—we don’t equate cute with patrolling.

Our very own, now seen in our midst, looks exactly like Spot, in the same yellow as traffic markings on roads. It isn’t known how many of these wired creatures N-Parks have acquired or will sent out eventually, but from the videos I have seen, that one dog is enough to inspire thoughts of rage of machines! It is creepily agile, with a ready-to-pounce gallop-gait, and seems highly aware of human presence. Who knows? This could be a crime-busting ex-police dog revived as a headless cyborg safe-distancing ambassador!

At the moment the metal canine is deployed to “encourage” (other words used include “assist” and “promote”), as the media reported, social distancing. It is equipped with cameras (notice, plural!) that enable park managers to estimate the number of visitors they receive. When unsafe proximity is detected, the mutt-ranger will play a recorded message to remind visitors that safe distancing measures are applicable, even under the trees. No barking! Frankly, I’m embarrassed that after more than two months of social-distancing public notices, we still need to be reminded of where to place ourselves in a crowd, and by a mechanical animal. I am also thinking, isn’t this similar to the drones used in China to chastise people for not wearing face masks? I suppose we’re deploying (robot) dogs because drones, by now, are a tad too common. And probably won’t arouse the deep interest of WFH Stephen Colbert.

Photo: (top) Getty Images, (bottom) screen grab/Youtube