Future Tense

A Robot Security Guard Rolled Its Way Into a Fountain

A Knightscope robot in better days.


Robots can do all kinds of things that humans just can’t.

They can sit in the same place for years and weld car parts together with a level of precision that no human can faithfully reproduce. Some smart machines can speak dozens of languages. Others can fly hundreds of feet in the air, surveilling life down below.

But sometimes the biggest challenges for robots are things that we humans take for granted. Like, say, not falling into decorative fountains.

On Monday, a robot security guard from the California-based startup Knightscope fell in a fountain outside of a Washington, D.C., office building. The wheeled robot was making its rounds when it encountered a common feature of manmade environments it’s not built to handle: a fountain with stairs.

Knightscope says that this is an isolated incident and that it’s replacing the robot at no charge. Presumably, the robot is equipped with computer vision software that should be able to detect obstacles, like bodies of water, or cars. But clearly, its smart eyes didn’t quite work in this instance, demonstrating how difficult it is for robots to navigate a world built for humans.

Knightscope’s robot is supposed to deter criminals and act as a roving security camera that can call for backup if it senses something has gone awry. But because it’s on wheels, it can’t pursue a human for very long, especially say, if the suspect walks up a flight of stairs. It also seems clear now that a savvy intruder would head to a water trap to evade his mechanical pursuer.

Other robots intended to navigate environments built for people are equally limited. Take the humanoid Pepper made by Softbank. Pepper is supposed to provide customer service in retail settings, like by answering basic questions and helping people find their way around a store. While Pepper is impressive in that it can move its arms and fingers in a remarkably lifelike manner and understand human language, ultimately, its most useful feature is the iPad strapped to its chest.

Same goes for Kuri, a new robot designed to rove around people’s homes. Kuri is cute and all, but like Pepper, it’s pretty limited. It can record what’s happening when you’re out of the house, like if your dog is letting itself out, and it can entertain your kids and remember their faces. But it can’t exactly help out with household chores.

This isn’t the first time a Knightscope robot has acted out of bounds. Last summer, a Knightscope robot was on guard at a mall in California when it rammed into a 16-month-old toddler and ran over one of his feet.

Bilal Farooqui, whose tweet brought the Knightscope robot’s dip in the fountain to widespread attention, referred to it as “suicidal.” But that’s giving the machine too much credit. After all, the robot security guard probably didn’t even realize where it was headed before it took the plunge.

For its part, Knightscope is playing along with the jokes online: