Friday, February 23, 2024

NYPD Removes Robot from Times Square Subway

The New York Police Department robot sat motionless like a sad Wall-E on Friday morning, gathering dust inside an empty storefront within New York City’s busiest subway station.

No longer were its cameras scanning straphangers traversing Times Square. No longer were subway riders pressing its help button, if ever they had.

New York City has retired the robot, known as the Knightscope K5, from service inside the Times Square station. The Police Department had been forced to assign officers to chaperone the robot, which is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 400 pounds. It could not use the stairs. Some straphangers wanted to abuse it.

“The K5 Knightscope has completed its pilot in the NYC subway system,” a spokesman for the department said in an email.

On Friday, the white contraption in N.Y.P.D. livery sat amid a mountain of cardboard boxes, separated from the commuting masses by a plate-glass window. People streaming by said they had often been mystified by the robot.

“I thought it was a toy,” said Derek Dennis, 56, a signal engineer.

It was an ignominious end for an experiment that Mayor Eric Adams, a self-described tech geek, hoped would help bring safety and order to the subways, at a time when crime remained a pressing concern for many New Yorkers.

The robot was to have been an extra set of eyes in a system where ridership remains well below prepandemic levels. Its squat presence was supposed to deter crime, and its communication abilities would provide a way for straphangers in distress to seek help.

“Eventually, this is going to be part of the fabric of our subway system,” Mr. Adams said in September, when he hailed the robot’s arrival in Times Square, part of a monthslong pilot project that he said was costing the city only $9 an hour.

“This is below minimum wage,” Mr. Adams said. “No bathroom breaks. No meal breaks. This is a good investment.”

But on Friday, Jose Natera, 49, a construction worker, said he would usually see two police officers awkwardly standing next to the robot under Seventh Avenue.

“Who cared for who,” he asked. “The robot for the police, or the police for the robot?”

Kelvin Caines, a security officer, said he never saw the robot making the rounds. Instead, it sat plugged into a charging station and people posed next to it for selfies.

The officers “never let it do anything,” he said. “They could at least walk it down the hallway.”

The city has been leasing the robot from Knightscope, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company. Last April, when the mayor first announced it had come to New York, his office said the city had struck a seven-month contract with the company, which included three months to prepare the device for use and four months to test it, all for the cost of $12,250. The robot began its patrol in September.

“The Adams administration is constantly exploring innovative technologies that can advance the work we’ve done to bring down crime and keep New Yorkers safe, while maximizing the use of taxpayer dollars,” said Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor. “We are reviewing options for the K5’s next deployment as part of the pilot.”

The Adams administration said in a statement Friday that it was “constantly exploring innovative technologies” and that it was reviewing options for the robot’s “next deployment.”

The mayor had said the robot would not use facial recognition technology, but its arrival immediately sparked concern among civil libertarians, who warned that it was the harbinger of an ever-more-dystopian surveillance society and would further infringe upon New Yorkers’ privacy.

Last year, the Legal Aid Society asked that the Police Department’s use of surveillance technology be investigated, arguing that it was violating a city law requiring it to disclose how new technology is being used and how data is protected.

On Thursday, Shane Ferro, a staff lawyer with the group’s Digital Forensics Unit, said that the Adams administration was “distracted by false claims of high-tech solutions to age-old issues.”

The mayor has a longstanding interest in novel, if not outlandish, technologies. As Brooklyn borough president, he touted a lasso-like device called BolaWrap that was designed to incapacitate emotionally unstable people. His friend Frank Carone had invested in the company. Mr. Carone would go on to serve as Mr. Adams’s chief of staff in City Hall.

Mr. Adams has also championed the city’s use of a robotic dog — the Digidog — to assist emergency responders in situations that pose a risk of bodily harm.

The arrival of the K5 in New York City was heralded with not one, but two media events. Its at least temporary retirement was accompanied by nary a beep.

Earlier this week, Edward Caban, the police commissioner, gave his state of the department address at Cipriani in Manhattan, where a video montage of all the technological gadgets and machines that officers have used in the past year was displayed on an enormous screen.

There was dramatic footage of drones, the Digidog, and a gun that can attach electronic trackers to fleeing cars.

There was no mention of the K5.

Stacy Stephens, a spokesman for Knightscope, declined to comment on Friday about the fate of the Police Department’s K5. “Unfortunately, we are not authorized to speak about certain clients,” she said. “We do hope you understand.”

The company’s stock was trading at 59 cents a share Thursday, down from $16.29 at its initial public offering on Jan. 28, 2022.

With major crimes down and the mayor mandating budget cuts across city agencies, Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy and civil rights group, said people should question spending on gadgets.

“I described it as a trash can on wheels, but it looks like the wheels aren’t even working at this point,” Mr. Cahn said.

On Thursday evening, as the rush hour crowds surged through the Times Square station, the robot sat silently in its brightly lit exile. Two police officers standing at the turnstiles nearby said that, although they were not regularly assigned to the station, they could not recall ever seeing the robot on the beat.

One of the officers said that he was relieved the robot had been mothballed. He did not want to be responsible for it.

Maria Cramer and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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