Mention robots to most people, and what do they think of first? The odds are it’ll be cataclysmic visions of machines taking over the world. The reality is not just less dramatic – but also more positive.
By way of example, take policing. You won’t be surprised to hear that robotics and automation have the potential to help police forces and officers do their jobs faster, more effectively and at lower cost and effort.
But there’ll also be another, less widely-anticipated benefit. By picking up much of the heavy lifting of mundane and routine tasks, these technologies will also free up officers to do more of what they do best: engaging personally and visibly with the public. So rather ironically, it might just be robotics and automation that helps bring the human face back to policing.
To explain how it’ll do this, let me start with some context. Across industries from retail to travel to financial services we’re seeing rising adoption of robotics to handle repetitive, manually-intensive activities. This trend isn’t limited to the private sector: the UK Department of Work & Pensions (DWP), for example, is pioneering the use of automation in government bodies.
Policing isn’t immune to the rise of automation. On the contrary, two factors make it virtually imperative for police forces. First, policing is now a data-led activity – and robotics represents the only viable way of managing and making sense of the vast amounts of data now being produced. It is quite literally impossible for humans to keep up with the volume of data being produced in even the smallest of cities every minute.
Second, despite the recent slight relaxation of the cutbacks, austerity will continue for some time to come. This means police forces need to do more with their existing resources. And given that the vast majority of their spending is on people, anything that enables them to use their people more efficiently has to be embraced.
So, how should police forces approach automation? The starting point is to understand there are two types of automated system. The first is “attended” robots, which are most useful in front-office, public-facing areas. Examples might include an application that sits on the desktop of a call centre operator and provides them with directions and shortcuts to other tasks that might otherwise require them to log into other systems. Attended robots can also keep track of a conversation with a caller and provide the representative with context-sensitive help.
With these uses of robotics, the benefits include shorter average call-handling times, quicker hand-offs and higher levels of first-call resolution. And by providing context-sensitive help, they also reduce the need for staff training.
The second type of robot is “unattended”. These are most appropriate for use in back-office processing, by automating repeatable and usually mundane tasks previously carried out by people. The result is that the tasks get done at higher speed and lower cost with fewer errors. Again, these benefits are already being realised in the private sector and by the DWP, and are directly transferable to the police.
So that’s the landscape of robotics and automation that police forces are now entering. But what specific use cases can they pilot and even start using today? Several spring to mind.
One is using “bots” to handle non-emergency repeat calls. Say a member of the public rings on a mobile to report their bike’s been stolen: when they call the next day to check progress, the bot can recognise their number and automatically provide them with an update – saving officer time and effort.
Automation can be used with emergency calls too. When somebody rings in with an emergency, the bot can quickly identify what assistance and skills are needed and prompt the despatcher to send them. And more generally, robotics can reduce the everyday need for officers to re-enter data into different systems – thus enabling their time to be used for more value-adding tasks, while also improving the quality and accuracy of data and management information.
What’s more, robotics can be hugely valuable in investigations. If the police have a seized a mobile phone that they suspect was used for criminal purposes, a bot will be much better and faster than a human at identifying what’s on it. Similarly, a robot equipped with facial recognition software can scan hours of CCTV footage for suspects much quicker and more accurately than a human ever could.
And the net effect of all this? As I highlighted at the start, it isn’t the Robocop dystopia portrayed by Hollywood. Instead, it’s a world where police are freed up from mounds of routine admin work, and able to get out there engaging with the community. Let’s use robots to help policing regain the human touch.