The man behind the company who created the NYPD’s $75,000 robot police dog, which was spotted in action in New York last week, was recruited to serve as an adviser to despotic Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s futuristic city-state project.
Dubbed “Digidog” by the NYPD, the robot assisted in a Manhattan arrest at a public housing building last Monday, sparking outcry from citizens and lawmakers who viewed it as a wasteful and invasive slap in the face as waves of anti-police brutality protests grip the country.
“We got another killing of Daunte Wright, we got the murder of Goerge Floyd, we got Breonna Taylor and so many others that we can’t comprehend,” said New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman in a video after clips of the robot dog went viral. “And now we got damn robot police dogs walking down the street. What the hell do we need robot police dogs? This is some RoboCop shit. This is crazy.”
The NYPD purchased Digidog from the robot design company Boston Dynamics, whose founder, former CEO, and current chairman Marc Raibert served on the advisory board of Neom, the Saudi crown prince’s “smart-city” project. The board of advisers was announced a week after the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
As more details of Khashoggi’s government-backed assassination emerged through 2018, several American tech tycoons on the Neom advisory board issued hasty public statements announcing the withdrawal of their memberships—but Raibert did not. Web archives have him listed as a board adviser as recently as July 2019, and the page has since been taken down.
Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Boston Dynamics reached out and told The Daily Beast that Raibert “is no longer on the advisory board” of Neom, but would not specify when he had withdrawn his membership, saying only that it had been “a while” since he was involved.
Raibert had traveled to Riyadh to attend an artificial intelligence summit hosted by the kingdom’s main investment arm in October 2017, to discuss how robots could fit into the mega-city vision.
“His majesty is obviously a world-scale, maybe a universal-scale big dreamer,” said Raibert, sitting across from the Saudi crown prince. “It’s really a pleasure to be involved in a project like this.”
Another panelist, who also served on Neom’s board of advisers, was Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, head of Boston Dynamic’s former parent company, Softbank. He said during the summit that he expected robots to outnumber people in Neom, and refused to cut ties with the Saudi prince after the Khashoggi murder, citing a “responsibility” to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom was an anchor investor in Softbank’s $1 billion Vision Fund.
In March 2018, the Saudi crown prince toured MIT, where Raibert had formerly worked as a professor and member of an artificial intelligence lab. During the visit, Raibert was pictured laughing alongside MBS while introducing him to the SpotMini, a smaller version of the Boston Dynamics robot dog used by the NYPD.
The brainchild of MBS, the $500 billion Neom project is an integral part of Vision 2030, an ambitious master plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy and rebrand Saudi Arabia as a more socially and culturally progressive nation. But the Neom project has already been mired in controversy, with over 20,000 people facing eviction from the site selected for the project, and one anti-Neom activist who was killed in a shoot-out with Saudi security forces last year.
Social media users have likened the NYPD’s Digidog deployment to a “Black Mirror” episode. When the robot dog was first spotted patrolling New York City’s Bronx borough in February, representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweeted out: “Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools.”
She added: “Please ask yourself: when was the last time you saw next-generation, world class technology for education, healthcare, housing, etc consistently prioritized for underserved communities like this?”