On Wednesday morning local time, a San Francisco animal adoption agency will soon end its use of a controversial security robot.
The move comes after that San Francisco SPCA was evaluated for its deployment of the Knightscope K9 to reduce the nuisance and presence of homeless people in its Mission Area office. KnightscopeThe Silicon Valley startup, says on its website that its robots are “the security team of the future.”
That robot made headlines when Business Insider reported Tuesday that “Robots are being used to prevent homeless people from setting up camp in San Francisco.”
Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, president of San Francisco’s SPCA, said the following in a statement to Ars on Thursday morning:
Although we have already limited the use of robots to our parking lot, we think that a more detailed, consensus-based, community approach on the appropriate use of these new tools would benefit everyone—perhaps it is in public space or in private storages. … We welcome guidance from the city on policies for the use of autonomous security robots. Since this story went viral, we have received hundreds of messages inciting violence and bullying against our company and encouraging people to take revenge. Additionally, we have already experienced two acts of vandalism on our campus.
A forced problem
The SF SPCA’s main facility sits at 201 Alabama Street, in a part of town that has been rapidly developing for well over a decade. What was once a vibrant Latino neighborhood has given way to San Francisco’s hipster heart—a new Alamo Draft House opened last year. Rents have increased. Homeless people often congregate near the Mission’s two BART stations.
In this important part of the Mission, however, there are not only individuals but also shacks and other litter shelters on public roads near the SPCA office.
When Ars arrived at the SPCA office unannounced Tuesday afternoon, the Knightscope K9 robot was nowhere to be seen roaming near the main entrance. We also found no evidence of any homeless people or encampments in the immediate vicinity of Alabama Street.
Knightscope rents robots to companies ranging from Microsoft to the Sacramento Kings. The company touts them as a supplement or replacement to human security guards—they only cost $6 an hour. The egg-shaped droids provide constant video surveillance and enhanced, portable physical presence.
Earlier this year, Ars reported on an incident in which a Knightscope robot was attacked.
The company did not respond to Ars’ request for comment.
When Ars asked the SF SPCA about the robot Tuesday afternoon, spokeswoman Krista Maloney explained that her organization has recently experienced “a lot of car break-ins, thefts, and vandalism.”
In the email, he explains why we need the robot:
Over the summer, our shelter was broken into twice… the inside was broken, and the property and money of the gifts were stolen. This is a serious safety concern, especially for our elderly staff. Also, many staff members and volunteers have complained about the damage to vehicles and the disturbance they experience in our parking lot while going to work after dark. We currently hire security guards, but we have a large school, and they can only be in one area at a time.
Maloney also said that, because of the robot, the agency has “seen a huge reduction” in petty violence and vandalism, which he called “very effective.”
Maloney also said that the robot “predicts and prevents crime,” and noted that it records video around the clock, “and evidence of vandalism or other crime is sent to the San Francisco Police Department.”
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who studies the machines, said there is no clear evidence that Knightscope’s robots can, in fact, predict or prevent crime. He also said the $6 an hour fee was “arbitrary” and suggested that Knightscope could set it in a traditional manner.
“They’re the only game in town,” Calo said. “Of course, they have every incentive in the initial stages to set (Knightscope’s price) low which makes it seem that they are cheaper than security guards. There (are) always people who are in the background.”
But more than economics, it’s troubling that the SF SPCA has even taken this step for one short month.
“How do we get to a point in society where we are treating people with robots instead of treating people with dignity and respect?” Calo said. “It’s a small step from a situation where the robots are taking care of things and then they need to call for backup. There’s a small space between that and they have to intervene.”
Likewise, Linda LyeA lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told Ars that the use of such robots is “a troubling example of how new surveillance technology is being deployed in ways that harm communities that don’t.” accordingly.”
Another law professor at Vanderbilt University, Christopher Sloboginwho has worked on “panvasive” surveillance technology, told Ars that these robots are perceived as more intrusive than traditional CCTV cameras.
“It’s just that robots are perceived more and more like people—and therefore they’re perceived as more intrusive than a camera on a stick,” he emailed.
In the month since the robot was deployed, the SPCA’s Maloney also said that the robot’s presence has not resulted in any arrests or prosecutions. But it also showed a “significant decrease in the amount of crime on our campus.”
Maloney added that the reason the robot was not seen when we visited earlier in the week was that it was only set up in the back office parking lot. He did not immediately respond to our further inquiry as to whether the robot would return to Mountain View.
“We piloted the robot system in an effort to improve safety around our school and to create a safer environment for staff, volunteers, customers, and animals,” Dr. Scarlett wrote in the statement. “Obviously, it backfired.”
“We sincerely hope that our robot pilot program will not overshadow the incredible work that our staff and volunteers do to serve animals and people—everyone, regardless of their living conditions. We also hope that it has attracted attention. to the challenges facing the homeless, a problem that needs all our attention.”
Updated 5:41pm ETIn an email to Ars, Knightscope spokeswoman Donna Michaels provided this explanation: “Contrary to sensational reports, Knightscope was not brought in to clear the area around the SF SPCA of homeless people. Knightscope is deployed, however, to serve and protect the SPCA. The SPCA has a right to protect its property, staff and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal. The SPCA has reported fewer car washes and is improving the safety and quality of the surrounding area. “
He did not immediately respond to further questions.