As the homeless problem continues to surge in San Francisco, an animal advocacy and pet adoption clinic has taken the novel, if dystopian, approach of hiring an autonomous security robot unit to clear out vagrants. The SPCA (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) deployed a K5 robot manufactured by Knightscope, a Silicon Valley-based robotics company, to help discourage homeless people from erecting tents on the sidewalks and streets near the clinic. Though it has reduced the number of encampments, the robot has drawn overwhelmingly negative reactions from city residents.
Resembling a Whovian Dalek, the K5 security robot moves at around three miles per hour and is equipped with four cameras and an array of lasers, thermal sensors, and GPS. It can be rented for $6 an hour as opposed to the $16/hr a security guard costs.
Here it is in action pic.twitter.com/nSBQUmKwk1
— Sam Dodge (@samueldodge) December 9, 2017
Representatives for the SPCA say homeless encampments were making the area dangerous for staff members.
“Over the summer our shelter was broken into twice. The inside was vandalized and property and cash donations were stolen,” S.F. SPCA spokesperson Krista Maloney remarked. “Furthermore, many staff members and volunteers have filed complaints about damage to cars and harassment they experienced in our parking lot when leaving work after dark. We currently employ security guards, but we have a large campus and they can only be in one area at a time.”
Bill Santana Li, CEO of Knightscope, which has 19 clients in five U.S. states, also defended the use of the robot, calling it an effective crime deterrent.
“If I put a marked law enforcement vehicle in front of your home or your office, criminal behavior changes,” he said.
Despite its efficacy, many have criticized the move, calling it draconian and even dystopian.
In a tweet, journalist Benjamin Norton opined: “Capitalism: instead of providing homes for homeless people, spend exorbitant sums of money creating robots that will prevent homeless people from making homes for themselves.”
The tension over robots in San Francisco has been growing for several years now, and the city previously passed a bill banning food delivery robots. As of last week, city officials had passed a bill banning the use of security robots altogether. This may be for the best for the robot itself. Within one week of its deployment, the SPCA reported attacks on the robot, saying people had “put a tarp over it, knocked it over and put barbecue sauce on all the sensors.” One resident also reported seeing the K5 with feces smeared on it.
With robotics on the rise and more companies integrating them into their business models, this issue is unlikely to go away.
In San Francisco, in particular, the use of robots as a policing force against the homeless touched a nerve — and for good reason. In recent years, San Francisco has turned into a major tech hub, and with a new surge in population has come skyrocketing costs for rent that have priced out many residents. Despite the $275 million the city spent on homelessness and supportive housing this year — plus over an additional $100 million spent by the private sector — the disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished continues to grow, as does the number of people forced to live on the streets.
A historically socially conscious city flush with venture capital remains mired in poverty; beneath the glittering arcologies of new high-rises and corporate headquarters remains the squalor of millions who have been left behind and are hopeless. Perhaps a shiny robot menacing the destitute is the perfect metaphor for a city whose tech startups may have come at the cost of the city’s humanity.
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