San Fran SPCA Used 'Robo-Cops' To Scare Away Homeless

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In San Francisco, it appears the dystopian future we’ve seen in all the sci-fi movies is not that far off from reality. According to The San Francisco Business Times, autonomous “crime-fighting robots” are going to be the new method for patrolling parking lots, sporting venues and campuses to deter the homeless from setting up sleeping camps in the area. Yes, personal robo-cops.

Thankfully, the deployed security robots in question, which are not-government controlled, are not lethally armed and were commissioned by the San Francisco SPCA, have “lasers, cameras, a thermal sensor, and GPS” in order to scan for used needles (which it disposes of) as well as any criminal wrong-doing, causing it to alert human police to the correct coordinates.

Krista Maloney, media relations manager for the SF SPCA, recently spoke to Business Insider when the story began to go viral, stating that staff were unable to go to work safely due to the homeless encampments that would take up the footpath. Maloney touted the then-success of the robot, adding that since the robot was introduced, the homeless began to be scared away and there were fewer car break-ins around the area.

It is unclear whether these robots are rented out to public individuals, companies, governments or all of the above. Most likely, these are for sale to both public and private entities.

Aptly dubbed “K9″ — which mainly patrolled a homeless encampment around the San Francisco area — the machine was soon “fired” from duty after locals in area began to complain, and the San Francisco government ordered the SPCA to keep the machine off of footpaths or be fined $1,000 per operating day, and civilians began to knock it over and smear it with food and bodily fluids.

In the last month, the robot was battered with barbecue sauce, littered with feces, covered by a tarp and toppled over by an unknown attacker, according to a report from The Washington Post.

“Effective immediately, the San Francisco SPCA has suspended its security robot pilot program,” said Jennifer Scarlett, the organization’s president, breaking the news to the robot. “We piloted the robot program in an effort to improve the security around our campus and to create a safe atmosphere for staff, volunteers, clients and animals. Clearly, it backfired.”

In a statement to Ars Technica, the San Francisco SPCA claimed this security backfire resulted in “hundreds of messages inciting violence and vandalism against our facility” once the story made it’s way to The San Francisco Business Times among other publications. “In addition,” she continued, “we’ve already experienced two acts of vandalism on our campus.”

In response to the public and governmental outcry over these private robo-cops (which just screams anarcho-capitalism), the organization promised it would introduce “a more fully informed, consensus-oriented, local approach” to their future use of security robots.

The Mountain View-based Knightscope, which constructs these kinds of robots for clients like Microsoft and Uber and rents them out for only $7 an hour (less than a security guard’s hourly wage), released their own statement clarifying the robot “was not brought in to clear the area around the San Francisco SPCA of homeless individuals,” only to “serve and protect the SPCA.”

On multiple occasions, the organization denied news reports that the robot was put in place specifically to get rid of the homeless. John Alvarado, who camps near the animal shelter, disagreed. “We called it the anti-homeless robot,” Mr. Alvarado told the UK’s leftist paper The Guardian.

“We started feeling like this thing was surveying us for the police,” said Lexi Evans, another homeless resident whose encampment was moved without any public housing system in place. “That’s officially invasion of privacy. That’s uncool.”

The most staggering fact, which seems to be lost in all the sensationalized reports on this story, is that these types of robots, which can be given out to public and private institutions cost over $60,000 per unit.

This is shocking when you consider it only costs the government $35,117 per person, each year, to give the homeless basic housing, and around $48,217 per person if left without government help, according to a new study from The British Journal of Social Work, in association with Oxford University.

It’s the moral argument to adjust spending to give ease to the homeless, who have reached the area liberals like myself describe as being “a slave to poverty,” but the fiscal argument is there too. Why spend $60,000 in funds, public or private, per unit, just to shift the homeless away to some other area or business? It’s a classic case of treating symptoms rather than the larger problem.  

“I can understand being scared about a new technology on the street,” Scarlett said, raising anger that “a non-profit has to spend so much on security at the same time.” She then concludes with the most bourgeois roundup of the issue anyone could possibly take away: “In five years we will look back on this and think, ‘We used to take selfies with these [robots]  because they were so new.”

So don’t expect the trend of robo-cops to die. They’ll be back on duty in no time.

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