×

Meet China’s RoboCop: the robot police officer who doesn’t tire – or second-guess commands

XiXinXing | Getty Images

China is developing a robotic security officer that can sniff out bombs, grab suspects with a mechanical clamp and deliver a jolt of electricity to neutralise threats.

The military researchers behind the project say it will start patrolling public areas such as banks, airports and schools, although a human-rights watcher has questioned whether the robot and its ability to carry out commands with no questions asked will be abused by the authorities.

"AnBot" has been in the works at the National University of Defence Technology in Changsha, southern Hunan province, and a prototype was finally unveiled to the public at a hi-tech expo in Chongqing last month.

"We are very, very interested in AnBot," said a senior official with the China Security Association, a trade umbrella organisation run by the Ministry of Public Security.

"It is difficult to gauge the size of the market for police robots at this early stage, but it could easily exceed 10 billion yuan [HK$11.97 billion], given the demand I know of," said the official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

The price of AnBot remained unclear, but if the manufacturers could bring it below 100,000 yuan per unit, "it will sell big", the official said.

Mainland China has seen a spate of large-scale violent attacks erupt in key cities in recent years, including bombings, knife attacks and arson.


More from the South China Morning Post :
Meet Jiajia, the realistic 'robot goddess' built by Chinese researchers
No artificial intelligence: Chinese restaurants' robots prove very dumb waiters
This robot from China can (probably) play badminton better than you

The government does not make public the number of such "mass incidents", but sales of security hardware hit about 500 billion yuan last year and the market has been growing by 17 to 20 per cent annually, the fastest in the world, according to the association.

Xiao Xiangjiang, who leads the development team at the defence university, told thePeople's Liberation Army mouthpiece PLA Daily that AnBot had undergone test runs at a military camp, airport and museum in Changsha with "very positive" user feedback.

Xiao said the robot, which moves on wheels, could carry out a non-stop patrol for eight hours, hitting speeds as high as 18km/h. Its cameras can recognise and track faces, and it is equipped with sensors that can detect explosives, drugs and weapons.

It can also be ordered via a remote human controller to deliver an electric jolt or its mechanical clamp to disable a target.

The first AnBots will be deployed at certain government and military facilities, border points, airports, bus stations, banks, hotels and school campuses, according to Xiao.

Professor Shi Zhongzhi, a leading scientist who has advocated the use of robots in security situations to reduce human error, said their scope of duties would likely be limited.

"They can only carry out certain law enforcement duties in a certain environment upon certain objects. In real life, they will not function properly without guidance from a human master," said Shi, who is the director of the Intelligence Science Laboratory at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

"Many soldiers and security personnel are working in torturous environments beyond the imagination of ordinary people. Security robots will end the pain," he said.

But some human rights researchers have expressed concern over an authoritarian state using robots to help maintain public security. Flesh and blood officers might refuse to carry out orders if they felt conflicted.

A study of the deadly riots that broke out between Uygurs and Hans in Xinjiang in 2009 found some officers experienced shock from the violence that the mobs on both sides were carrying out in the streets of the capital, Urumqi.

Military researcher Ding Kui, at Shihezi University, and her colleagues surveyed more than 320 personnel involved in the operation to quell the riots.

They found that facing "sudden, massive casualties [of civilians], the officers and soldiers suffered serious trauma … [and later] kept reproducing the brutal scenes in their heads," her team wrote in study published in the China Journal of Health Psychology in 2014.

The anxiety and fear led to "depression, sleep disorders and emotional instabilities," the researchers said.

But police robots would not suffer such effects. "They don't feel tired and they don't know fear," AnBot project leader Xiao was quoted by PLA Daily as saying.

Frances Eve, researcher of China Human Rights Defenders, a non-governmental organisation, said the AnBot and similar devices "ultimately are controlled by human operators".

They could be used to discriminate against certain ethnic, religious or political groups in the name of counterterrorism or anti-riot operations, Eve said.

"Continued political interference in China's law enforcement bodies leads to the real worry that these robots could quickly become an Orwellian surveillance tool deployed against the population," she said.

Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.