Human Rights

A ‘Security Robot’ for the Homeless Has Already Been Tried—It Didn’t Go Well

The 400lb machine that once patrolled outside the San Francisco SPCA prompted a backlash, as some argued its real mission was to drive people away.

Knightscope security robot.
Photo Credit: Screen Capture via Knightscope, Inc./Youtube

To some who are homeless, San Francisco’s latest security robot was a rolling friend on five wheels that they called “R2-D2 Two”. To others living in tents within the droid’s radius, it was the “anti-homeless robot”.

For a month, the 400lb, bullet-shaped bot patrolled outside the not-for-profit San Francisco SPCA animal shelter, rolling around the organization’s parking lots and sidewalks, capturing security video and reading up to 300 license plates per minute. Homeless people who pitched their tents in an alleyway nearby complained they felt the beeping, whirring droid’s job was to run them off.

“We called it the anti-homeless robot,” said John Alvarado, who was one of numerous people camping next to the animal shelter when the robot arrived. He said he quickly decided to move his tent half a block away: “I guess that was the reason for the robot.”

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Officials of both the SF SPCA and Knightscope, who rented the robot to the shelter, denied that the intention was to dislodge homeless encampments.

“The SPCA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal,” Knightscope said in a statement.

SF SPCA staff members said the facility had been plagued with break-ins, staff members had been harassed as they went to the parking lot and sidewalks were littered with hypodermic needles. Jennifer Scarlett, the SF SPCA president, said in a release that her organization “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”.

But after complaints about the program were shared widely on social media, the organization quickly admitted it had made a mistake in its choice of security guards – and fired the robot.

“Since this story has gone viral, we’ve received hundreds of messages inciting violence and vandalism against our facility, and encouraging people to take retribution,” said Scarlett, noting that their campus had since been vandalized twice. “We are taking this opportunity to reflect on the ‘teachable moment’.”

Some of the homeless people who crossed paths with the white security robot, which bore images of dogs and cats, as it patrolled outside of San Francisco SPCA this month thought it was a cute and a positive addition to the area.

TJ Thornton, whose tent is still pitched across the street from the shelter’s parking lot, nicknamed the bot “R2-D2 Two”. He liked how the machine made little whistling sounds as it moved along the sidewalk and how it would even say “hello” if you walked past it.

Thornton said he thought the bot had a positive influence on the neighborhood and relieved the pressure on local homeless people to always keep an eye on cars parked nearby. “People living on the streets actually watch out for the cars. If anyone does anything stupid, like breaking into cars, it reflects on us.”

Others saw the robot as Big Brother, surveilling their every move with video cameras. “That SPCA robot was the bane of our existence,” said Lexi Evans, 26, who has been living on San Francisco’s streets for 13 years. “It was driving us crazy.”

She said her group of friends had a tent encampment behind the SPCA. When they first saw the robot looking at them, they found it creepy. Then they noticed its white light flashing and thought it was recording their every move on video. Later they observed police officers coming to interact with the robot and wondered whether it was feeding information to law enforcement.

“We started feeling like this thing was surveilling us for the police,” said Evans, whose whole tent encampment has now moved around the block outside another business. “That’s officially invasion of privacy. That’s uncool.”

Evans said that once, someone became so angry with the thing that they knocked it over. The robot made a “whee-ooh wah” sound.

In another instance, somebody “put a tarp over it, knocked it over and put barbecue sauce on all the sensors”, Scarlett, the SPCA president, told the San Francisco Business Times.

Trouble really started for the robot last week, when the city issued an order for it to stay off the public sidewalk or face a daily penalty of up to $1,000 for operating in the public right of way without a permit. Then the story hit the internet, with Scarlett telling the Business Times that “from a walking standpoint, I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment”.

But by Friday, SF SPCA was apologizing for having brought in the machine.

“We regret that our words were ill-chosen. They did not properly convey the pilot program’s intent and they inaccurately reflected our values,” said Scarlett. “We are a nonprofit that is extremely sensitive to the issues of homelessness.”

Knightscope’s robots have gotten into trouble in other cities. Last year, a similar robot allegedly ran over a 16-month-old toddler at the Stanford Shopping Center in the town of Palo Alto, causing minor injuries. Another Knightscope security robot became famous on social media for drowning itself in the fountain of the Washington DC office complex it was policing.

“I already miss it,” said Danica Dito, who works in the SPCA administrative offices. “Just the fact that it rolled around discouraged crime.”

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