As It Happens

San Francisco SPCA deployed this security robot to chase off homeless people

San Francisco resident Fran Taylor speaks with As It Happens about the SPCA's security guard robot.
A K5 security robot made by the company Knightscope, similar to the one used by the SPCA in San Francisco. (Rob Lever/AFP/Getty Images)
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San Francisco has ordered an animal welfare organization to remove its security guard robot from the sidewalk, but one resident is concerned about the use of the technology and where it will pop up next.

The robot, made by the Silicon Valley company Knightscope, was recently deployed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in part to ward off homeless people.

"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," Jennifer Scarlett, the San Francisco SPCA's president, told the Business Times.

Since using the robot, the SPCA said there was a decrease in encampments and vehicle break-ins.  

But resident Fran Taylor isn't a fan of the robot. She described it as a "tool of intimidation" to As It Happens host Carol Off. She also says it does nothing to solve the problem of homelessness in the city. 

It's just making life miserable for the people who might want to sleep there- San Francisco resident Fran Taylor

"It's not conveying new information. Everybody knows the tents are there — the police knows they're there, the public knows they're there," Taylor said. "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."

According the Business Times, people living in the encampments weren't happy about the robot either. At one point, they put barbecue sauce on the sensors.

A sign informs the public about a K5 security robot patrolling the grounds of the Washington Harbour retail-residential centre in the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C., July 26, 2017. (Rob Lever/AFP/Getty Images)

Taylor first saw the robot after attending a training class with her dog at the SPCA.

"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. 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."

The K5 robot is about 160 centimetres tall and weighs around 181 kilograms. It has four cameras and is "capable of reading up to 300 license plates per minute," says the company's website

Taylor says she wouldn't have as much of a problem if the SPCA had hired a real security guard. It would mean a paying job for someone in the city where the minimum wage is $14 US. Also, she says, that person would be able to "be a human" and "maybe have some connection with people."

Fran Taylor is also a volunteer with the pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco. (Submitted by Fran Taylor)

While the robot has been ordered off the sidewalk because there was no permit, Taylor says it could return.

"I think this is just a trend that needs to be addressed before it becomes in wide use. Because then it will be like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb, where they just break the laws and then they sort of run amok and it's hard to reign it back in and regulate an industry that's just, you know, been unregulated and sort of taken over."  

As for the San Francisco SPCA, Jennifer Scarlett said to Ars Technica that they welcome further conversation about the regulation of these robots: "Although we had already limited the use of the robot to our parking lot, we think a more fully informed, consensus-oriented, local approach on the appropriate use of these new devices will benefit everyone —whether it's on public space or in private parking lots... We welcome guidance from the city on policies for the use of autonomous security robots."

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