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A Charity Used Security Robots to Scare off Homeless People


Knightscope security robots have triggered a kerfuffle in San Francisco

UPDATE: Ars Technica reports that on Thursday, following the backlash, SPCA decided to stop using Knightscope robots.

A charity took flak after using bulky security robots to keep homeless people away from its animal shelter in San Francisco.

Knightscope security automata have been around since 2013 and are a familiar presence in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Earlier this year, the “suicide” of one of the R2-D2-like robot, which drove straight into a fountain in Washington DC, made headlines worldwide.

But now the autonomous sentries are causing outrage as it emerged that the San Francisco chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) hired a $6-an-hour Knighscope machine to patrol the sidewalk outside its shelter. Its apparent aim is shooing homeless people who set up their tents on the pavement.

According to a story published on the San Francisco Business Times,  the robot— fitted with cameras and moving at 5 kmph—  was seen as “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.”

That was confirmed by  SPCA’s local representative Jennifer Scarlett, who said: “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.”

While the robot itself is not able to do anything other than move around and broadcast footage to security personnel, it possesses an intimidating aura that keeps people at arm’s length. Nonetheless, Scarlett said, some people have dastardly  “attacked” the robot, blindsiding it with cloths, and smearing it with sauce.

The news of the SPCA’s initiative triggered strongly negative reactions among the general public, which criticised the decision of targeting people sleeping rough. In the wake of the backlash on social media the charity kept mum, whereas Knightscope itself denied that its machines were being used to target homeless people.

“Knightscope was deployed to serve and protect the SPCA,” the company told The Verge. “The SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area.”

The incident happens as new San Francisco regulation is bound to forbid the deployment of robots in city streets; the animal shelter will have to find other ways to prevent the creation of encampments.

Image via Knightscope



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