DISRUPTION

Robots are being used to shoo away homeless people in San Francisco

The San Francisco branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has been ordered by the city to stop using a robot to patrol the sidewalks outside its office, the San Francisco Business Times reported Dec. 8.

The robot, produced by Silicon Valley startup Knightscope, was used to ensure that homeless people didn’t set up camps outside of the nonprofit’s office. It autonomously patrols a set area using a combination of Lidar and other sensors, and can alert security services of potentially criminal activity.

These robots have had a string of mishaps in the past. One fell into a pond in Washington, DC, in July. Another ran over a child’s foot in California in 2016. And Uber, which is no stranger to the ethical quandaries of what it means to be gainfully employed by a company, has used the robots in San Francisco.

Knightscope’s business model, according to Popular Science, is to rent the robots to customers for $7 an hour, which is about $3 less than minimum wage in California. The company has apparently raised over $15 million from thousands of small investors.

In a particularly dystopian move, it seems that the San Francisco SPCA adorned the robot it was renting with stickers of cute kittens and puppies, according to Business Insider, as it was used to shoo away the homeless from near its office.

San Francisco recently voted to cut down on the number of robots that roam the streets of the city, which has seen an influx of small delivery robots in recent years. The city said it would issue the SPCA a fine of $1,000 per day for illegally operating on a public right-of-way if it continued to use the security robot outside its premises, the San Francisco Business Times said.

“Contrary to sensationalized reports, Knightscope was not brought in to clear the area around the SF SPCA of homeless individuals. Knightscope was deployed, however, to serve and protect the SPCA,” A spokesperson for Knightscope told Quartz. “The SCPA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal. The SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area.”

Update (Dec. 13): This post has been updated to include comments from Knightscope.

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