Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rise of the robots, Revenge of the Homeless

Security robot on patrol - Video Washington Post
Luddite: (adjective) one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change - Merriam-Webster

by Greg Saville

The story of the Luddite resonated last week with word from San Francisco about a controversy surrounding the  K-5 Security Robot. We blogged on the K-5 a few years ago - On the threshold of a robotics revolution.

Since then the journey of the security robot has not been straight; it has been drowned in a Washington DC fountain and it has mistakenly run over a toddler's leg at a Palo Alto shopping center.

And last week, according to Newsweek, the security robot was removed from duty after deterring homeless encampments near the San Francisco SPCA. Apparently homeless people vandalized the SPCA robot, angry about being singled out by the SPCA and the security robot.


The issue is layered. On one hand, security robots are the latest technology and like all new technologies, they can be applied in ways both sacred and profane. There are places, such as underground parking lots, where an automated security patroller with surveillance tools can keep watch and help make isolated places safer.

In the San Francisco case, SPCA representative Krista Maloney says“staff wasn't able to safely use the sidewalks at times because of the encampments… since the SPCA started guarding its facilities with the robot (known as K9) a month ago, the homeless encampments have dwindled and there have been fewer car break-ins.”

But beneath the surface lurks a darker story.

There must be a better way. Photo Wikimedia Commons


This blog has reported on the so-called hostile architecture movement, especially CPTED tactics used to dehumanize places to exclude certain groups over other groups. Dealing with homeless encampments, which by definition means dealing with homeless people, with a security robot, is a questionable tactic. And the homeless have been outraged. Since the security robot began patrolling in front of the SPCA, the Washington Post claims it has been "allegedly smeared with feces, covered by a tarp and nearly toppled by an attacker."

Are there better, more humane, solutions? In some communities, Housing First programs seem to work. In fact, the Canadian city of Medicine Hat, population 65,000, claims to have eliminated homelessness with the Housing First strategy. Why isn’t San Francisco helping the SPCA and the homeless with such a program?