Robots are being used as a weapon against homeless people in San Francisco

Robots are being used as a weapon against homeless people in San Francisco

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be homeless? Those lucky enough to have a place to call their own will probably never truly understand what it's like to spend endless hours hunched up on the streets, not knowing where our next meal is coming from.

San Francisco is well known for being one of the toughest places in the United States to be homeless, having the highest proportion of unsheltered homeless people and apparently counting 511 people on the streets for every 100,000 residents. However, sleeping rough in The Golden City became a lot more painful recently when homeless people found themselves targeted by autonomous crime-fighting robots which were allegedly sent to shoo them off the streets.

San Francisco SPCA, an animal advocacy and pet adoption group, put the crime-fighting robot fleet on the streets roughly a month ago, reportedly in the hope that the machines would detect criminal activity taking place within its gentrified Mission neighbourhood. Using special technology, including lasers, cameras, thermal sensors and GPS, the machines were supposed to alert authorities to needles, car break-ins and damage to public property, among other criminal activities. Yet things took a different turn when the robots came for homeless encampments on their automated route along the sidewalk.

According to news sources, the autonomous robots, this time allegedly sent by SF SPCA specifically to deter homeless people from setting up camps on the sidewalks, began to shoo the homeless people away. However, the people in the encampments didn't take kindly to the disruption with eyewitnesses claiming that they became aggressive with the machines. According to Jennifer Scarlett, president of the SF SPCA, they "put a tarp over it, knocked it over, and put barbecue sauce on all the sensors." However, they weren't done with it yet; onlooker Tyson Kallberg claimed on Twitter that a member of the public smeared their faeces on the machine.

The incident has prompted a negative reaction from the public, who took to social media to vent their frustration and condemn the SPCA for setting the robots on homeless people in the first place. Decrying the SPCA's actions as heartless and uncalled for, people vented their anger, insisting that people living on the streets already had enough to worry about without authorities setting robots on them. In addition, some of them questioned why the money spent on hiring them out wasn't put to better use, suggesting it should have been given to charity instead.

Despite the vehement backlash, both SF SPCA and robot creators Knightscope have stuck to their guns, stating that the robots were not specifically hired to target the homeless community and insisting that the crime rate in the area had improved since they had been put on the pavements.

“Contrary to sensationalized reports, Knightscope was not brought in to clear the area around the SF SPCA of homeless individuals,” a spokesperson wrote on Twitter. “Knightscope was deployed, however, to serve and protect the SPCA. The SCPA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal. The SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area.”

Furthermore, Jennifer Scarlett, president of the SF SPCA has stated that she believes the robots are a good addition to the San Francisco community, saying: “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.” She has also expressed enthusiasm for the idea of robots replacing humans in everyday jobs, stating that using humans would be "cost prohibitive". According to her, the security machines cost about $6 per hour to rent from Knightscope, whereas the minimum wage for human workers in San Francisco is $14 per hour.


Designed and operated by Silicon Valley-based robotics company Knightscope, the five feet tall, 400-pound security robots were already a divisive addition to society, with many arguing that they are gratuitous and take away jobs from the community. However, in Scarlett's opinion, they are much needed. In addition to stating that the S.F. SPCA wanted to see a resolution of “the complicated issues around homelessness", she also stated that people had to think about why the animal advocacy and pet adoption group had invested in them.

“I can understand being scared about a new technology on the street, and we should be asking questions about it," she said. "But we should probably be a little bit angry that a nonprofit has to spend so much on security at the same time."

Homeless man Credit: Getty

The robot invasion has been an issue on American's tongues for a long time now, with many people questioning just how useful they really are, amid several embarrassing incidents. Creators were left red-faced back in July 2016 when a robot security guard at the Stanford Shopping Center in Silicon Valley knocked down a 16-month-old toddler while on duty and kept on driving. Sheepish bosses were embarrassed yet again in July 2017 when a DC-based robot drowned itself in a nearby fountain, prompting locals to question how beneficial they really were - and to speculate if the robot really hated its job so much that it would rather drown itself...

Ultimately, it seems that, no matter what your opinion on the value of the security machines, the issues of crime and homelessness cannot ever be completely merged and remain two different problems in their own right. Whether or not you agree with the Dystopian move of putting society under robotic surveillance, the fact of the matter is that they should never be sent to clear the streets of homeless people who have nowhere else to go. In fact, rather than dispatching an army of machines to solve the problem, San Francisco authorities, and the rest of the United States, would likely do better to step outside their comforts zones and attempt to solve the problem with a little old-fashioned love, care and attention.