Border Patrol’s Answer To Climate Change Is Robot Dogs. And, It’s The Wrong One

Climate change is a threat multiplier that reinforces the U.S.’ military-industrial complex. 

In the fourth season of the popular Netflix show Black Mirror, there is an episode titled “Metalhead” where humanity’s biggest threat is canine-like robots, who detect humans using tracking devices. In this dystopian, survivalist nightmare, the audience joins the humans on their mission to avoid the robot dogs.

Eventually, one of the protagonists is cornered by the robo-death squad, perishes, and the box of teddy bears she was pursuing bursts open. The lingering image is the contrast between the plush, comforting stuffed bears and the callous, unemotional animalistic robots that surround them. Neither is a living being, both are manufactured by humans, but their intent and potential are diametrically opposed to one another.

These robot dogs are inspired by real life and have been introduced to us as benign creatures. Boston Dynamics’s robot creations have gone viral for doing useful tasks — opening doors or picking up objects around the house. Ghost Robotics’s quadrapeds may even seem impressive, with their capacity to balance on slippery ice and wade through rugged terrain. You might even feel bad for them when you watch a human kick an “ANYmal”, until you see with your own eyes the eerie invulnerability with which they have been deliberately designed.

In February, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) announced that they would be supplying their staff with reinforcements in the form of such robot dogs (also called “Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles” or AGSVs). This collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate and Ghost Robotics has resulted in 100-pound, all-terrain quadrupeds whose goal, it seems, is to support patrolling at the southern U.S. border. 

“There are numerous examples of how automated systems like these are especially likely to misidentify people of non-Caucasian ethnicities and exacerbate discrimination against them. That threat grows manifold in border areas,”

“The use of so-called robot dogs at the border raises several ethical issues”, said Saif Shahin, Assistant Professor of Digital Culture at Tilburg University, “It’s a violation of privacy. The sensors on these robots are likely to collect various kinds of information about individuals near the border without their knowledge or consent.”

Supposedly the robots will be used in instances of alleged criminal activity, though it is unclear what their role will be exactly. Equipped with high-end cameras and a suite of sensors, these four-limbed vehicles are not that far off from the gun-toting ones that debuted at last year’s Association of the United States Army conference. But, what is key to their design, is that they are capable of navigating higher temperature areas that are perilous for CBP staff. 

Border Patrol and Climate Change Both Threaten The Southern Border

Although climate change isn’t explicitly mentioned in the DHS feature article, it is alluded to through the use of phrases like “life-threatening hazards”, “inhospitable place”, “temperature extremes”, and “high heat,” when referring to the terrain. Indeed, it omits that the U.S. southwest is becoming increasingly warm and dry, with much of it currently steeped in varying levels of drought. Despite the toll climate change is taking here, the U.S. is still seen as a refuge for migrants fleeing violence, economic turmoil, and climate disruption in their own countries. 

Most people attempting to cross the U.S border have made the exceptionally difficult decision to leave their own homes for a new, extremely uncertain one – many for climate-related reasons. Some are coming from Haiti, for example, which does not have the resources to batten the country’s hatches against perpetual storm damage from hurricanes. Others are coming from a “dry corridor” that runs through Central America, where a combination of droughts, flash floods, and other extreme weather have obliterated its 10 million residents’ ability to practice subsistence farming. 

Even without enduring heatwaves, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has always been treacherous because of the CBP officers themselves. They have been recorded kicking aside jugs of water left for migrants by humanitarian organizations, hitting them with vehicles, and threatening them while on horseback. Even residents of border communities, such as El Paso, that are not attempting to make passage, have dealt with these abuses of power, including verbal assault and body cavity searches. 

According to Shahin, “[quadruped surveillance is] a form of mass criminalization … [implying] that every human being living near the border is potentially doing something illegal and therefore needs to be monitored.”

The ICE Detention Centers used for inhumanely detaining migrants, which are unfeeling and unsafe in their own right, are also woefully unprepared for climate change. For example, after Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana’s Catahoula facility, both water and air conditioning stopped running and the center’s recorded temperatures reached more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celcius). 

Robot Dogs Are A Diversion, Not A Solution

DHS is clearly committed to stemming the flow of migrants and maintaining CBP presence at the border, whether human or AI. While humans are able to absorb emotions and understand context, AI has not proven to have this capacity. AI is known to pick up on human behaviors, such as racism and homophobia and internalize those biases. As a result, it is unlikely that these robot dogs will be able to decipher between a target that is in distress versus a reasonable threat. In fact, much militarized AI is designed to streamline violence.

“There are numerous examples of how automated systems like these are especially likely to misidentify people of non-Caucasian ethnicities and exacerbate discrimination against them. That threat grows manifold in border areas,” said Shahin.

While CPB did not share what this program costs, a single Vision 60 quadruped by Ghost Robotics goes for $150,000. If hundreds of these are deployed across that nearly 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border, it would likely cost DHS tens of millions of dollars.

“Robot dogs like these don’t operate on their own but as part of a larger system of surveillance that includes various other technologies monitoring people in different locales, databases in which all information from all such technologies is recorded, algorithms that analyze the data and so on,” said Shahin.  “Their deployment bolsters what many call the surveillance-industrial complex, which encroaches upon people’s lives not just at the border but everywhere.”

These funds could instead be funneled into services that support migrants seeking refuge, or better yet, give them resources to recover from climate change in their own home countries. 

If CBP is insistent on detaining individuals at the border, they could use the funds to house them humanely and not in dilapidated, overcrowded cages. Or, they could recognize that climate change does not stop at the border. Their resource arsenal could instead be deployed to develop the solutions that not only migrants and climate refugees, but people around the world, are craving as the threat of catastrophic climate change looms ever nearer.

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