In one of the strangest — and also one of the most disheartening — tech stories to come out of the Bay Area in recent months, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has been ordered to yank a robotic security guard tasked with patrolling the sidewalks outside of its San Francisco campus after it was revealed that the robot was driving away homeless people.
The nonprofit faces $1,000 per-day fines imposed by the city if the roving 5-foot-tall Autonomous Data Machine is caught making the rounds without a proper permit. This shouldn’t be an issue, however, as the SPCA has presumably returned the $6-per-hour rental robot with a "commanding presence" to its maker, Silicon Valley startup Knightscope, following significant public uproar and threats of retribution.
The backlash began in earnest after the San Francisco Business Times published an interview with SF SPCA President Jennifer Scarlett in which she implied that the robot — dubbed "K9" and adorned with stickers kittens and at least one life-sized Chihuahua — was enlisted with the purpose of shooing homeless San Franciscans congregating on the fringes of the SPCA campus, which encompasses an entire city block in the rapidly gentrifying Mission District. San Francisco, which is in the throes of a seemingly never-ending affordable housing crisis, has the sixth highest largest homeless population in the United States. Just under 7,000 people are living on San Francisco's streets per estimates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development although local authorities and homeless advocacy groups believe the number to be much higher.
Prior to unleashing a sluggish 400-pound robot armed with a security camera on the public right-of-way, the SPCA had experienced an uptick in vandalism, car break-ins and employee harassment that, in the words of the Business Times, "seemed to emanate from nearby tent encampments of homeless people along the sidewalks." Employing a 24/7 non-robotic security guard was a budgetary no-go for the nonprofit given that a human would start at $14, which is San Francisco’s minimum wage. Enlisting an automated Paul Blart from Knightscope was the more efficient and cost-effective option, allowing the SPCA to dedicate more funds to its crucial work.
Shortly after K9 arrived on the scene last month, instances of criminal activity all but vanished along with the encampments themselves, which Scarlett believes is directly correlated.
"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," Scarlett told the Business Times.
An 'obvious attack' on vulnerable citizens?
Although the homeless encampments disbanded following the arrival of K9, the people living in them didn’t go without a fight. Scarlett notes that the robot was covered with a tarp, knocked over and slathered with barbecue sauce while on duty. It was also reportedly smeared with feces at one point.
Many local residents were just as put off by the robot's presence. Pedestrian rights advocate Fran Taylor complained to both the SPCA and city officials after a run-in with the robot while walking her dog, which was understandably freaked out when the hulking machine slooowly approached them at 3 miles per hour. Taylor explains to the Business Times that the robot’s presence seemed "like an obvious attack on the very people in San Francisco who are already having such a hard time surviving in this expensive city."
"It's quite large. At first, I thought it was from some little start-up firm or something — being used as a joke or as a test," Taylor told Canadian radio host Carol Off. "Then, as it got closer, I could see it had [the] SPCA logo, and pictures of Chihuahuas and other dogs on it. I realized it was being used by the SPCA. I was horrified."
"It's not conveying new information," Taylor added. "Everybody knows the tents are there — the police knows they're there, the public knows they're there. It's just making life miserable for the people who might want to sleep there. It makes noise, it goes around 24/7, it has sort of little lights blinking."
I can’t help but feel bad for the SPCA robot outside that someone smeared their poo on. Is this a conspiracy to make me (us) a sympathizer to our new robot overlords... will they be plastered in cute dog decals??— Tyson Kallberg (@TysonKallberg) November 9, 2017
As outraged sentiments mirroring Taylor’s grew and the story went viral, an under-siege SPCA found itself inundated with threats of violence and vandalism. The nonprofit promptly pulled the plug on K9 and issued a statement to the Washington Post. In it, Scarlett defends the organization’s decision to enlist a robotic rent-a-cop.
"Effective immediately, the San Francisco SPCA has suspended its security robot pilot program," Scarlett explains. "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."
The statement continues: "The SF SPCA was exploring the use of a robot to prevent additional burglaries at our facility and to deter other crimes that frequently occur on our campus — like car break-ins, harassment, vandalism, and graffiti — not to disrupt homeless people. We regret that our words were ill chosen. They did not properly convey the pilot program’s intent and they inaccurately reflected our values."
The SPCA could reboot the program if it decides to secure Department of Public Works-issued permits. But judging from Scarlett’s statement and the backlash sparked by the presence of the robot, this seems unlikely in the near future.
A tech-driven city's growing robot woes
Knightscope also issued a statement to the Post and other media outlets following the fracas in which it dismissed news stories — many of them breathlessly headlined — about the robot’s alleged anti-homeless mission as "sensationalized reports."
"The SCPA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal," the statement reads. "The SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area."
This isn't the first time that the Mountain View-based startup has garnered controversial headlines. In July, a Knightscope robot enlisted to patrol an upscale Washington, D.C., retail and office complex drowned itself in rather dramatic fashion in a public fountain. The previous summer, a security robot deployed at a Palo Alto mall collided with and seriously injured a 16-month-old toddler.
Although it's unclear if crime-deterring security robots like the ones produced by Knightscope will be impacted, San Francisco lawmakers are cracking down on the number of delivery robots allowed to roam city streets — a distinctly San Franciscan quandary if there ever was one. Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors voted to usher in strict new rules that would, among other things, cap robot permits at three per company and limit their operation to specific neighborhoods with low pedestrian foot traffic. The presence of a human chaperone within 30 feet of all times will also be required.
"Not every innovation is all that great for society," explains Norman Yee, the city supervisor who authored the legislation. "If we don’t value our society, if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot ... what is happening?"