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San Francisco Police Now Allowed to Deploy Killer Robots

Published: November 30, 2022
San Francisco police officers look on as they assist San Francisco firefighters during a medical call on May 24, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Nov. 29 supervisors in San Francisco voted to allow the city’s police forces to use potentially lethal, remote operated robots in emergency situations following an emotionally charged debate on the matter. 

Despite objections from civil liberties and other police oversight groups, the measures passed with a vote of eight to three. Opponents to the move say the use of lethal robots is a further escalation of the militarization of the city’s police force that has been accused of being too aggressive with poor and minority communities. 

A member of the committee that forwarded the proposal, Supervisor Connie Chan, said she understood the concerns tabled but “according to state law, we are required to approve the use of these equipments. So here we are, and it’s definitely not an easy discussion,” the Associated Press (AP) reported. 

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) says it currently does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm a robot with a firearm however the department could now equip a robot with an explosive device in order to “contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous” suspects when lives are in danger, SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement on the matter. 

“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” she added.

According to the proposal, “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.”

The proposal was amended on Tuesday to specify that SFPD officers could use lethal  robots only after attempting to address the emergency using alternative force or de-escalation tactics, or in the event that authorities are not able to subdue the suspect through alternative means. Otherwise, as a last resort.

In addition, only a limited number of high-ranking SFPD officers will have the ability to authorize the use of the lethal technology.  

According the the SFPD, the force currently has around a dozen robots in its arsenal that are used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations. They were procured between 2010 and 2017 and have never been used to deliver an explosive device, police officials said. 

Activists and experts concerned

The proposed killer robot policy has both experts and activists concerned about the implications of using robotic deadly force against humans. 

Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Vice,”We have a very clear position that we do not think in a domestic policing context robots should ever be armed,” adding that, “We really fear you’d be seeing these armed robots coming out to every protest on standby and that’s just a very dangerous situation.”

A law and information science professor at the University of Washington, Ryan Calo, told NPR that there is no reason for a robot to use deadly force because “you send robots into a situation and there isn’t any reason to use lethal force because no one is actually endangered.”

A precedent for equipping a robot with an explosive device to kill a human was set in 2016 in Dallas. At the time, Dallas police officers used a robot armed with C4 to kill a man suspected of using a sniper rifle to target police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest. It was the first recorded incident of a robot being used by police to kill a person.

The controversy follows an open letter recently penned by Boston Dynamics who has pledged never to weaponize their technology. 

“Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society,” the letter read.