South Korea was always one step ahead in many areas of technology, and now it seems that they are going to take the lead in another area – prisoner supervision. More precisely, the country has moved forward with a government sponsored program to develop a robot that will operate inside prisons and perform at least some of the more hazardous and repetitive tasks human prisoner guards currently perform.
As part of a project sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Justice, tests using specially developed prison gourd robots are being held at a jail in the city of Pohang, southeast of Seoul. The robots are designed to patrol the jails corridors and monitor the condition inside each cell on their route. Each robot is equipped with a specially developed software and sensors that enable it to detect any type of unusual activity (violent, suicidal or otherwise) and alert the human guards if necessary.
At this point the robots are not intended to crack down on violent prisoners. Their main purpose is to help existing prison officers perform their task and reduce workload (especially at nighttime). The robot can also be used to communicate with prisoners from a control room and can be operated remotely or on location using an iPad.
The prison gourd robots navigate the jail by locating sensors placed on the ceiling of the prison. The bots are semi-autonomous, when their battery power drops below 20%, they find the nearest charging station and attach to it. Each four-wheeled robot will eventually cost nearly $300,000.
At this stage the almost 1 million dollar research project is just a test. If proven successful the robots might enter service in more prisons across the country. In the longer run it is possible that prison gourd robots will perform more advanced tasks including prison searches although this will require some fairly advanced innovations which current technology does not offer. Interestingly Korean officials did not comment on the possibility to operate the robots to forcibly stop violent prisoners using future robots (using tear gas or other means). Maybe society still isn’t ready for armed gourds looking after humans.
More information can be found on the following BBC article as well as on the following video:
Iddo has a B.A. in Philosophy and Cognitive Science and an M.A. in Philosophy of Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently writing his Ph.D. thesis on the relationship between the scientific community and industry. Iddo was awarded the 2006 Bar Hillel philosophy of science prize for his work on the relationship between science and technology. He is a member of the board of the lifeboat foundation and was the editor of several high-profile science and technology websites since 1999.