The Homeless Shooing, Crime Fighting, Robots in San Francisco
By Benjamin Steele
The new brutalist future is here, and it’s coming in the form of ‘robot sentries’. I would have expected to start an article about cruelty to homeless people by talking about a big law firm, tech company, or some sort of mustachioed villain petting a robotic cat. But no, the story begins at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The SFPCA have been ordered, writes Mike Murphy at Quartz, to stop using a Knightscope autonomous data-gathering robot to shoo away homeless people outside their building. The fact that the robot itself is covered in decals of cute animals makes this even more vomit-inducing.
OK, I need to stop for a second. Look at this thing. It looks like the lovechild of a Dalek from Dr. Who and an iPhone, and it’s marketed like its some kind of tech-utopian apple product. According to the manufacturer’s marketing materials you can stream video from the robot to your favorite handheld device — you know, for maximum homeless-shooing efficiency.
This is, however, far from utopian. It’s the spiked windowsills all over again, just dressed up with kittens.
Among the many issues with this sleek Bond-themed Dalek (seriously, watch the video below by the company that makes these things) is the fact that it most certainly needs some evaluation before it can continue with any sort of public use. For one thing, it has a tendency to fall into things and run people over. Murphy writes: “These robots have had a string of mishaps in the past. One fell into a pond in Washington, DC, in July. Another ran over a child’s foot in California in 2016.” On top of that, an autonomous data machine streaming information back to private companies brings up privacy concerns. Furthermore, the robot is shooing people in public spaces, by what legal definition does it operate?
Thankfully, San Francisco’s municipal government has taken action to stop the SPCA from using the robot in public spaces. According to the Business Times; “On Dec. 1, the Department of Public Works sent the SPCA an email saying that the robot is operating in the public right-of-way ‘without a proper approval.’ SPCA would have to stop using the robot on sidewalks or request a proper permit, according to the DPW email reviewed by the Business Times.”
On the surface the wish to create a better environment for everyone using the building makes sense. I do believe that it’s a genuine wish of the SPCA and the people who created the robot. The problem is the method they chose. Quartz quoted reported on a comment by a spokesperson from Knightscope:
“Contrary to sensationalized reports, Knightscope was not brought in to clear the area around the SF SPCA of homeless individuals. Knightscope was deployed, however, to serve and protect the SPCA. The SCPA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal. The SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area.”
This position is particularly transparent, given that Jennifer Scarlett, the president of the S.F. SPCA has indicated that removing the encampments, was indeed a goal of theirs. According to a quote attributed to her by the Business Times: “We weren’t able to use the sidewalks at all when there’s needles and tents and bikes, so from a walking standpoint I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment.”
Now I’m not at all blind to the real problems that the SPCA faces, and their need to secure the safety and property of everyone involved. This approach, however, is as callous as it is thoughtless. All this robot can hope to do is move criminals and homeless people onto the next block. It’s not the kind of problem solver we want or need. It doesn’t make the city safer. It might make the SPCA’s neck of the woods safer by its presence, though that is unconfirmed. It’s the “hope it happens to someone else” approach to these problems. Not to mention, the approach incorrectly and harmfully attributes crime to homeless populations.
Additionally, the robot was not operating on their property. It was operating on public property, which is something they are not, in fact, within their rights to do. Presenting robotic sentries as the lesser of two evils is a disingenuous argument that obfuscates the true source of criminal activity and makes public streets less hospitable to pedestrians.
The whole situation highlights a need for proactive, rather than reactionary, policy-making when it comes to tech. Innovation in the tech sector has always outpaced legislation, and this is the latest proof that some people can’t stop themselves from pushing the limits of decency with unregulated tech.
On the other hand, I don’t place blame squarely with the SPCA, or even with Knightscope. The problems to which these terrible solutions have been presented come from a varied web of causes that include improper support for victims of abuse, insufficient mental health support, and the ridiculous cost of living. The SPCA most certainly needs affordable options for security, and funnily enough, those homeless people could do with somewhere to sleep. These are solvable issues, and we don’t need robots to tackle them.
Organizations (including the city) that work to permanently remove homeless encampments in S.F. by transitioning the people in them to other living arrangements are working as hard as they can with the budget they’re given, but dollars to effect, the effort does not seem at all optimal. The surfacing of private security robots underscores that the problem is not being effectively managed. People on the front lines are overwhelmed. There are policy, funding, and execution problems, but a patrolling robot is not making these problems any easier to solve.
In their frustration, I understand why the SPCA would take a measure like this. We should all take it as a sign that overhaul is needed in the ways we tackle homelessness.