Whats Going on with the Legally Lethal Robots

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The announcement by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to allow the city’s police to use robots that can deploy “deadly force” in the fight against crime has been met with concern. 


What Killer Robots?


According to a San Francisco Police Department policy document, the city has essentially approved using 17 robots, 5 of which aren’t currently functioning. The remotely controlled, ground-operated robots include (for example) REMOTEC robots that can climb stairs (such as in apartment buildings), carry tools and accessories, and have an arm that can lift weights from 65 to 85 pounds. They aim to support officers in “training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments”. 


The SFPD policy document outlines how: “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.” 


Bad Memories – New York


The announcement has re-ignited fears and concerns expressed in May 2021 when, on the other side of the US in New York, ‘Digidog,’ the police robot dog with a militarised appearance, was deployed to an incident in the Bronx. Footage published online caused alarm and criticism among members of the public, which was heightened at the time by the high-profile incidents of police killings of black citizens, and the resulting protests. On seeing DigiDog, comparisons were made with fictional characters like the Terminator and Robocop and this led to comments that the robot was ‘creepy’ and like something from a dystopian future. 


Killed By Robot


Robots have been used with lethal force by police before. For example, in 2016 in Dallas, police used a bomb mounted on a robot to kill a sniper gunman who had shot five police officers during a protest. 


SFPD does not currently have robots equipped with lethal force. However, if/when deployed, it appears the new robots that SFPD plan to use is intended only to be used in extreme circumstances to tackle similar situations, i.e., “potentially be equipped with explosive charges to breach fortified structures containing violent, armed, or dangerous subjects”. 




Despite assurances that such robots would only be used in particular situations, there has, of course, been criticism of SFPD’s policy decision, including: 

– The use of robots is dehumanising and makes humans feel more distant from the use of force, its consequences, and the emotional impact of killing / taking a life. This could make it easier to make decisions to use lethal force. 

– Amnesty International and the campaign group ‘Stop Killer Robots’ are vocal and active in their opposition to the use of ‘killer robots’ and autonomous weapons systems wherever they are used or planned. 

– Their use could be normalised and gradually broadened until they are deployed in situations where they don’t need to be, i.e. their use could constitute excessive force. 

– Mistakes could still be made, and innocent people could be killed or injured with robot attacks, e.g. as they have been with drones. 

– This could be a tool that begs to be used and police may choose to use it when they should be looking for other options. 

– It could be more of a threat to San Franciso’s most vulnerable people and ethnic communities. 

– It could be a step towards a dystopian future. 


What Does This Mean For Your Business?


SFPD has assured people that these robots would only be used in extreme situations where innocent people and first responders are in danger. Other options are not viable, e.g. incidents like mass shootings. Also, this is a policy change announcement, and there are currently no robots being used by the SFPD with lethal force capabilities. Basic remote-controlled robots have proven their use around the world for bomb disposal. The new robots planned by SFPD are also remote-controlled, relatively basic models and a far cry from the idea of an autonomous, humanoid robot such as Robocop. However, many valid fears have been expressed, and the thought of robots on the streets, controlled by the police and equipped to kill, is unnerving to many people and could be seen as a first step along the road to a frightening future if not appropriately regulated or used precisely as intended.

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