It’s the height of tourist season in Kuusamo, Finland, and a party of skiers from Spain is being drunk and disorderly on Ouluntaival Street; a typical Friday night in this remote downhill skiing center. Local police are responding, corralling the shouting tourists and encouraging them to return home to their rented cottage in the hills outside of town. What isn’t exactly typical is the “police dog” keeping an eye on the culprits. When a group of onlookers get too close, it rears up slightly and politely asks them to step back in a cutesy, high-pitched voice.
With its four legs whirring softly and a cluster of cameras keeping a 360-degree view of the proceedings, this Hoadong “Koiro” Robodog is hardly your ordinary K9 unit. Adopted by the Finnish National Police in 2019, the Koiro is a boxy, meter-tall robot standing on four spindly limbs. Painted in the dark blue and yellow stripes of the Finnish National Police, its extensible camera cluster helps it stand out in a crowd, and perform its primary role; facial recognition and surveillance.
Kuusamo has a population of around 16,000 people, but receives more than 1 million tourists annually, mostly coming to the nearby skiing areas in the village of Ruka. The town struggles to deal with the kind of petty theft, vandalism and disorderly conduct that such an influx of people brings in the winter months.
“When the ski chalets are full, we’re dealing with petty crimes eight nights a week, it feels like. The police are needed everywhere, mostly just for crowd control; that’s why we brought in the Koiros,” says Kuusamo Police Robot Unit Sergeant Oiva Nyman, who coordinates the fleet of Koiros, from the Finnish robottikoira, literally “robot dogs.” Nyman maintains and helps officers work alongside the town’s eight Koiros, and explains that they’re mostly there to help fewer officers cover more ground. “They aren’t here to solve crimes or anything like that, but they’ve got better vision than a human officer, they can see in the dark, match and identify faces, and they can stay out on the streets for 12, 13 hours at a time. Anything which saves one of our human officers a few hours of work every day is worth it.”
Kuusamo implemented a photographic identification system for all of its visitors in 2018, as part of the adoption of the Koiros; registering for a hotel or room rental in the town requires submitting pictures of the faces of every visitor. This allows police officers to use Koiros to immediately identify visitors on sight, as well as their nationality, language of choice, and even home address in the town.
“We use the robodogs in two main roles; first as patrol support for officers, and second as mobile information terminals. The entire fleet can be controlled by a couple officers in the central station house, or assigned to patrol remotely; their AI systems have learned where the street traffic is, what parts of town are busy when, and where they can wander to be the most useful,” Nyman explains.
While the robodogs are most useful with a human set of eyes behind the screen, covering blind spots for human officers on the ground or helping ID criminals, when left to their own devices they’re equipped with a robust AI interface that can give directions or help passers-by in eight different languages. In a pinch, they can even recognize key noises like raised voices or the sound of glass breaking, to alert police forces that an altercation might be underway.
Nyman isn’t particularly worried about the darker implications of AI policing. “We don’t deal with a lot of serious crime here in Kuusamo. We’re not hunting murderers or arsonists. The Koiros also go a long way towards dealing with accusations of profiling; an officer supported by a Koiro can immediately pull up a suspect’s police record and double-check their identity. They also have monitoring officers controlling the robodog on the line to provide a second opinion; it helps the officer feel supported on the ground, but it also ensures that there’s a layer of constant supervision so abuses of power don’t happen.”
Still, the local police force has already noticed some unusual trends developing in the Koiro system’s AI. Several Russian tour groups have complained to the Finnish National Police that they have been “stalked” by Koiros on automatic patrol, and that attention from the robodogs has also attracted unwanted attention from the Kuusamo police. When prompted on the matter, Nyman seems somewhat uncomfortable.
“It’s an unfortunate truth that, well, based on what we’ve seen, Russian tourists tend to imbibe more when they’re out on the town, and end up interacting with police units more. The Koiro system has picked up on this trend, and Koiros on automatic have been known to focus too much time and attention on people with Russian registry IDs, or people speaking Russian.” Still, he doesn’t seem worried about the implications of the “AI profiling” in effect. “This is a relatively new system with many bugs and glitches to work out, and we’re always working to prevent bias. I think the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Locals seem unconcerned with these accusations of profiling. Many are happy that the police have more support to deal with rowdy skiiers and the like. “Oh yeah, they creeped me out at first,” says Ilta Salmi, who works for a local grocery store that caters to tourists. “But I felt a lot better when I realized there was a human on the other end. I mean it’s basically just a security camera you can talk to.”
The Kuusoma police force have devoted a great deal of effort toward making residents and tourists aware of what the Koiros can and can’t do, but also to making the robots more approachable. The robodogs are fitted with large screens that can display the face of their operator, maps, or even a cartoonish avatar, and their in-built voices have been set up to sound cute and nonthreatening. The robot’s movements are even programmed to give its camera cluster an obvious “face”, so people nearby can tell what direction it’s looking in.
The rollout of the fleet was also accompanied by a public information privacy database, which allows residents of the city to see exactly what information the Koiro AI is saving on them, and to request the removal of their information from the database if need be.
The adoption of the Koiro fleet hasn’t gone without some resistance. A recent petition to Kuusamo city hall calling for the cancelling of the robodog program garnered more than 2,000 signatures, all from locals, calling the project “a breach of privacy,” and complaining about “surveillance where none is needed.” In response, the police opened a hotline dealing with complaints about the machines, though they’re received few that are serious enough to follow up on.
“It’s only natural that people would feel a little uncomfortable around the Koiros,” Sergeant Nyman says, laughing. “It took me a few weeks, too. What we really want people to know, though, is that these machines don’t represent an invasion of privacy, and more than a surveillance camera on a public building might. They’re not following you, or saving data about you; they’re just a way to help human police officers serve the public better, and cover more ground safely.”
Response among the tourist community was somewhat more substantial; Kuusamo’s hotels and resorts saw a 2% drop in sales when the facial-recognition system was announced in 2018, though numbers quickly recovered.
“Do a few tourists balk at the idea of giving over a picture of yourself for the town database? Sure, sure they do,” says Inari Karvonen, owner and manager of Lumi Lodge, one of the largest local tourist hotels. “But realistically, it’s not any different than giving a scan of your passport. We like of think of it as insurance, sort of; it’s the visitor promising that they’ll behave themselves while they’re in our little town.”
That a small Finnish resort town would have such an unusual police force is no accident; it’s a deliberate goal of the UN Office for Global Artificial Intelligence (UNOGAI), who fund the development of ground-level AI technology around the globe. Kuusamo applied for the UNOGAI’s World City AI Ranking program in 2018, making it to the final round of competition before losing out to Manilla. Still, even the competition process sparked city-wide interest in the new technology.
“We sat down to ask ‘how can this money benefit the city,’ and realized pretty quickly that a little bit went a long way. We had planned for sixteen Koiros, a computer network with all the hotels, but it quickly turned out that we didn’t need all that to make things better,” Sergeant Nyman recalls. UNOGAI observers spent three months in Kuusoma, advising on the adoption of new technologies and helping troubleshoot and support programs the city funded itself.
Inari Karvonen says the best thing the observers did was jump-start the conversation of how AI tech could help the city, and cheaply. “There was this moment of ‘Hey, wait a minute- this stuff pays for itself!’ And after that, I think any serious doubts went out the window.” The program has even created jobs; the Kuusamo Police now employs a mechanic and a software engineer full-time to maintain and upgrade the robots and their database.
In light of the success of the Koiro program, the Kuusamo city council has begun planning for an entry into the 2022 World City AI Ranking, with the goal of expanding the fleet and better integrating its facial-recognition AI into other parts of city infrastructure, including healthcare and driver registration. Plans are also in place to source upgrades and replacement parts for the Koiros more locally, as the current models of robodog are built in South Korea and new parts need to be shipped in. Several Finnish tech companies have expressed interest in licensing the Hoadong design, or even building their own similar robots for city use.
The Koiro project has also attracted national attention from other municipalities. Kuusamo Police Department has begun rotating in officers from other districts to gain experience and training with the AI systems. The nearby town of Raahe, itself a major tourist hub thanks to its historic wooden architecture, borrowed two of the Koiros for several months last fall to experiment with them as a tool to monitor the flow of visitors through historic buildings; the program was a resounding success, and the Raahe city council intends to purchase at least three robodogs directly from Hoadong.
“It all goes to show,” Sergeant Nyman says from his desk, watching through the eyes of a Koiro as it directs tourists through one of Kuusamo’s busy shopping streets, “these kinds of small jumps forward can really change the way a city operates. It’s exciting! Feels like we’re living in the future.”