The robot egg looks friendlier than the robot dog. The four-legged “Digidog” from Boston Dynamics prowls with an unsettlingly insect-like crawl. But the K5, an “autonomous security robot” made by a California tech-company called Knightscope, comes across like a child-size marshmallow that sort of glides. It’s “similar to like a Roomba,” Jeffrey Madrey, the NYPD’s chief of department, said earlier this month while introducing the new autonomous fleet alongside the mayor. The K5 can travel up to three miles an hour, has 360-degree HD recording capabilities, and talks. (“We are here to get stuff done,” the robot told the mayor. “Hashtag GSD.”) The general idea is that using this particular bot to patrol Times Square and the subway below will keep New Yorkers safe — offering “real-time situational awareness” and “physical crime deterrence,” according to Madrey. But if you ask tenants at LeFrak City, who lived alongside their own Knightscope K5 for the better part of two years, the robot — which management named Rosie — was really just a slow-moving Ring camera. “She would get stuck if she was surrounded by a bunch of little kids,” says one tenant.
LeFrak City rolled out their K5 in 2017 as part of a $70 million renovation. Knightscope told the New York Times her basic cost structure was $7 an hour, or about $61,000 a year. Along with a new pool, soccer field, playground, and park for the planned community of twenty towers in Corona, Queens, the complex’s 15,000 tenants also got Rosie. In addition to her roving security responsibilities, LeFrak management wrote on Facebook in October of that year that Rosie would be “programmed to engage in helpful interactions, such as directions to each of the buildings or amenities!!” though tenants said they never heard her say much more than “Hello!” At Christmas, she was dressed up as Mrs. Claus. On Halloween, management covered her in spider-web stickers. Rosie was supposed to be cute.
Not all tenants were charmed. “It was all about the property,” says one former resident, who left the complex in 2020. “They did all these renovations and the landscaping, and added all these rules about keeping off the grass and not being there after hours and that’s what she was there to enforce.” Rosie, the tenant alleged, primarily roamed the courtyard near the library where teenagers often hung out. When the occasional fight or party would break out — “Not a lot of people really cared about the robot,” one teenager said to me of Rosie’s alleged impact as a deterrent — people largely handled them as they always did, by calling the cops or intervening themselves. “You see her going around, she clearly had a camera, but what does that actually do?” the tenant said. “It’s not preventative. She’s gonna do what you could do — call 911.” Rosie was also reportedly buggy, so people wondered how she was meant to help in high-emotion situations. “She was bulky, she was slow,” another current tenant told me, adding that Rosie couldn’t even break up an argument between 12-year-old girls.
Mostly, Rosie watched, beaming data from her egghead back to the Mid City Security offices at LeFrak. “I felt like the Robot was invading our privacy when we were sitting in our park with our kids,” another resident told me. Her shining, high-tech presence also felt like an affront to some tenants facing rent hikes or asking for basic repairs. “HOW MUCH YOU GONNA RAISE THE RENT TO PAY FOR THIS NONSENSE,” one person commented on a picture of Rosie on the LeFrak tenants’ association page when she was introduced. “Meanwhile in our back bathroom i have to push 9 times to make the toilet flush,” another wrote.
Similarly, some New Yorkers are struggling to see the logic behind a a surveillance Roomba that will cost $12,500 just for a seventh-month lease, plus Digidogs for $750,000, while public-service budgets are increasingly being cut. The NYPD and Adams maintain that these are worthy investments, and that the Times Square K5’s job will be to send “real-time incident notifications to first responders” (though for the first month it will have to travel with a “human partner” to make sure it works properly).
Rosie ultimately lasted less than two years at LeFrak. Tenants say that just as abruptly as she arrived, she was gone. A representative for the tenants association told me that LeFrak could no longer afford her during the pandemic. Some people heard she broke and they never fixed her. (A K5 deployed in an office building in D.C. once rolled into a fountain and drowned.) Neither Knightscope LeFrak’s management did not answer questions regarding Rosie’s fate. A 44-year-old tenant and lifelong LeFrak resident told me he used to see Rosie’s light roaming the courtyard at night. He doesn’t miss it. “Did it make me feel safe? Of course not,” he said. “It’s just security theater. It was so stupid.”