Robots Are Being Used to Shoo Away the Homeless in San Francisco

As a person who deals with the homeless on a regular basis, I am very close to their plight and understand that there are many influences that lead to their current state, with mental illness being at the top of the list. What I can tell you is that the homeless population is as close to being invisible as a group of people can be, so when I heard that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was using a robot to shoo away homeless people who might attempt to set up camp near their building, I was somewhat put back.

First, there is the irony of a group that is dedicated to protecting animals from acts of cruelty using a robot to shoo away homeless people. The disconnect that we experience daily in this world is widening, and that is for those of us who have roofs over our heads. To think that using a machine to run people off your property is humane is cause for concern. Don’t get me wrong, it is both, cost-effective and expedient, but the lack of personality and the inability to make judgment calls can have long-reaching negative effects.

The robot being used is a prototype created by Knightscope, a Silicon Valley startup. The robot, which I must admit is not that imposing from a physical perspective, has been programmed to patrol a specific stretch of sidewalk that runs in front of the San Francisco SPCA office. The robot also has the capacity to detect what can be considered criminal activity and alert the building security.

It seems that I am not the only one who believes that using a robot is not the best method for dealing with the homeless population, as the City of San Francisco has issued a cease and desist order to the SPCA ordering them to stop using the robot to manage the homeless population near their property. There is also the reason for concern, with several notable mishaps being reported concerning the machine. In one instance, a robot ran over a child’s foot in California, and another fell into a pond.

Knightscope’s business model is to develop affordable robotics that they will ultimately rent and lease out to the public for as little as $7.00 per hour. This is significant because that is less than the minimum wage in this country, and $3.00 below the minimum wage in California. Uber is currently taking a lot of heat for using the robots in the San Francisco area.

When it comes to using these robots to control areas populated by humans, homeless or not, there seems to be a certain dichotomy to the argument against it. Not only does it appear to be inhumane, but it eliminates job opportunities for security personnel. Even with the advancement of artificial intelligence, it is not likely that a robot rented for $7.00 per hour will have the ability to make situational decisions, which should be a requirement when operating in areas populated by humans.

Well, that is only one side of the equation. While the city of San Francisco and I both agree that robots should not be used to manage a populated area, not everyone agrees. In fact, there are some investors with very deep pockets who have used some of that money to endorse the idea of integrated robotics and artificial intelligence by investing $15 million into Knightscope’s vision.

As a side note, it seems that the San Francisco SPCA attempted to mitigate the pushback it would receive by adorning the robot it used to control its homeless intruders with stickers of kittens and puppies. To me, it has the opposite effect. The stickers are a reminder of the lengths the organization will go to protect animals (which I support by the way), but at the same time treat the homeless population with disrespect.

With many of these individuals suffering from some form of mental defect, including PTSD, paranoid schizophrenia, dementia and more, it is impossible to determine how they will respond to the robot forcing them to leave the area. This could lead to an escalation of violent or disruptive behavior that would be less likely with a human. Nevertheless, this is not likely the last time we will be hearing about this. It is only round one.


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