Earlier today, we mentioned the bizarre story of a San Francisco animal shelter which was using a low cost, high-tech robot security guard to purge homeless people outside its facilities. The San Francisco SPCA branch had contracted Knightscope to provide a K5 robot (the same model which in July committed suicide at a mall fountain) for securing the outdoor spaces of the animal shelter.
Why use a robot to chase away humans? Simple: money - it costs the SPCA $7/hour to rent the robot, about $3 less than the minimum wage in California, and according to San Francisco Business Times, the robot was deployed as a “way to try dealing with the growing number of needles, car break-ins and crime that seemed to emanate from nearby tent encampments of homeless people.”
Everything was going great - and very cost-efficiently too - until the local humans fought back, knocked the robot over, and smearing it with feces before eventually forcing the robotic guardian to be purged itself.
But first, the local community's anger at the unwelcomed K5's presence manifested itself in the way anger and outrage always seem to emerge these days: on twitter.
Dear San Francisco,— Leslie Lee III (@leslieleeiii) December 12, 2017
It is your duty to destroy these things if you see them. https://t.co/VZ1vWe5KyM
Yes, 2017 was the first time I saw robots used to prevent encampments in SF. Hard to believe but it’s real. https://t.co/Xo41veNfPN— Sam Dodge (@samueldodge) December 9, 2017
Capitalism: instead of providing homes for homeless people, spend exorbitant sums of money creating robots that will prevent homeless people from making homes for themselveshttps://t.co/FowyreaUTV— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) December 13, 2017
What happened then is straight out of Terminator: according to reports, a group of anti-robot vigilantes doused the K5's sensors with barbecue sauce, knocked it over and veiled it with a tarp. One Twitter user claimed they saw feces smeared on its shell, while another described the robot's use as "shameful".
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
The robot upset local resident Fran Taylor:
Last month, the robot approached Taylor while she walked her dog near the SPCA campus. Her dog started lunging and barking, she said, and Taylor yelled for the robot to stop. It finally came to a halt about 10 feet away, she said. The encounter struck Taylor as an “unbelievable” coincidence since she had been working with pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco in asking the city to limit sidewalk delivery robots. That legislation is expected to receive final approval soon but doesn’t apply to security robots like K9.
Taylor said she’s concerned about robots bumping into people on the sidewalks. She knows robots are often equipped with sensors so they don’t do that, she added, but “I don’t really trust that.”
She wrote an email to the SPCA the day of her encounter and copied several San Francisco government officials, including Mayor Ed Lee and members of the Board of Supervisors. The SPCA team responded and cited security concerns as the motivation for starting to use the robot.
"The money that was spent on these robots could have gone towards homeless shelters," said another twitter user who clearly did not do pass Econ 101.
The money that was spent on these robots could have gone towards homeless shelters https://t.co/D7RHQi0RoL— Kaiti ain't ya lady (@Kaitikitti) December 13, 2017
As we reported earlier, the shelter said it released the robot, nicknamed K9, to patrol the pavements around its centre in the Mission District, which has become a camp for the city's homeless population.
"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," the SPCA's president Jennifer Scarlett told the Business Times.
The shelter told one website that it only hoped to improve the safety of its employees, following an influx of crime in the surrounding area, and that it is "extremely sensitive" to the issue of homelessness.
"In the last year we've experienced a great deal of car break-ins, theft, and vandalism that has made us concerned about the security and safety of the people on our campus," the SPCA's media relations manager Krista Maloney told Dezeen. "The security robot that we've been using on a pilot basis has been very effective at deterring these criminal incidents."
The revulsion to the robot was bizarre: hardly reminiscent of the T1000, the bubbly K5 is equipped with four cameras that monitor its surroundings, and moves on wheels at speeds of up to three miles per hour. It measures 5 feet tall and nearly 3 feet wide at its base, creating a sizeable obstacle on the pavement. To be sure, the rollout of this particular model has been problematic: the K5 has already been embroiled in other controversies elsewhere, including knocking a toddler over in Silicon Valley, and falling into a pond in Washington DC after missing a set of stairs.
Meanwhile, San Francisco is already tightening restrictions on autonomous machines on the streets – particularly delivery robots – with growing concerns over public safety.
What is most perplexing in this story, is that this is just one robot provoking such a broad and angry response: one wonders what the human backlash will be once a vast portion of America's middle class realizes that it has been made obsolete courtesy of robots who can do its job faster, smarter, much more efficiently and for a fraction of the cost.