Will Robots Be Killers?

San Francisco, of all places, approved a measure to use killer robots. No, not robots that will run around with their own deadly agenda, but robots that will be armed and sent into situations where they can be used to kill.

Police in San Francisco will be allowed to deploy potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations. The controversial policy was approved after weeks of scrutiny and a heated debate among the city’s board of supervisors during their meeting on Tuesday.

At first blush, one might wonder what’s the big deal about killer robots. After all, they don’t kill on their own, but only upon direction by a person, making them little different than the handgun on their belt except available for use in situations where a human would be put at risk. Indeed, by using robots, there is a possibility that the blight of the reasonably scared cop who shoots too early out of fear for his own safety will be reduced. After all, fear of being shot is a much greater concern than fear of a robot being shot.

Yet, opposition to this initiative was strong.

Police oversight groups, the ACLU and San Francisco’s public defender had urged the 11-member body to reject the police’s use of equipment proposal. Opponents of the policy said it would lead to further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with underserved communities. They said the parameters under which use would be allowed were too vague. Supporters argued that having these robots as an option in dangerous situations was necessary given what they see as an ever-increasing risk of a high-profile shooting hitting the city.

As the EFF argued, the use policy for killer robots was so broad as to allow them to be used pretty much anywhere.

 “The robots listed in this section shall not be utilized outside of training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments. 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.”

This is incredibly broad language. Police could bring armed robots to every arrest, and every execution of a warrant to search a house or vehicle or device. Depending on how police choose to define the words “critical” or “exigent,” police might even bring armed robots to a protest. While police could only use armed robots as deadly force when the risk of death is imminent, this problematic legal standard has often been under-enforced by courts and criticized by activists.

Apparently, a last minute amendment was that only brass are allowed to make the call of whether to send in the robots.

The policy was approved with an amendment that specifies the circumstances in which robots can be used and clarifying that only high-ranking officers will be allowed to authorize deadly force.

While there is some basis to assume that brass will be more circumspect in allowing the use of killer robots than the random street cop, experience suggests that’s not necessarily the case and, indeed, there is substantial pressure on high-ranking officers not to be responsible for the death of a cop because he made the call to not use a robot.

There is no question that there are situations where sending in a robot rather than live officers will be the wiser choice, reducing if not eliminating the potential that a cop is needlessly put at risk when performing his duty under circumstances that carry a high risk of violence.

“We have it as a a tool [we can use] if we have time, have secured the scene and we weigh out if we want to risk lives or if can we send a robot,” said Lazar during the board of supervisors meeting.

In contrast, the assumption that killer robots will be deployed against minorities seems fairly obvious as well.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing … these kinds of tools will deepen the disparities in inflicting deadly force on communities,” said Dean Preston, a supervisor who represents San Francisco’s long-troubled Tenderloin neighborhood.

Of course, whether the use of killer robots will “deepen the disparities” is wrong depends on whether they are utilized properly or not. Whether the bullet comes from a cop’s sidearm or a robot, it is neither better nor worse if the shoot is justified. If it’s not justified, then neither cop nor robot is any better than the other.

Is the approval of killer robots merely adding another tool to the arsenal of police that has a significant potential to save lives? There is a deep concern that when the police are given toys tools that could be put to proper use, they swiftly stray beyond their limited purpose and are used promiscuously, needlessly. Consider MRAPs, the militarization of police for no better reason than they have the gear and they can. Consider what happened with tasers, a less-than-lethal weapon that should only be used when force is justified becoming a weapon of compliance because it was less likely to kill. Consider no-knock night time warrants.

The arguments in favor of having and using killer robots are strong, and if they are used only when justified and appropriate, will no doubt be a very useful tool in the police arsenal that will save the lives of officers as well as citizens. The problem is that there is so little faith that the cops will be capable of restraining themselves from sending in robots whenever there is any possibility of a risk of violence, and using them because they can.

The problem, then, isn’t robots but cops using robots. The robots won’t be the killers, but the cops using robots may be. No one has figured out a solution as yet to this problem.

14 thoughts on “Will Robots Be Killers?

  1. Mr. Ed

    I don’t see it as an issue, unless they start using the remoted controlled armed robots for no knock warrant breaches. I see potential for much abuse their.

    In all other circumstances, they would be typically deployed after a suspect has barricaded themselves. And that takes time.

  2. Burban

    Dallas PD used a robot to kill a suspect in an officer involved shooting in July 2016. It was the first time a robot had been used in such a manor. There was a call to develop guidelines for using robots in similar situations. There has been no public discussion since ( at least that made it as far south as Central Texas).

  3. Rxc

    I seem to remember a mayor of a major city authorizing the police to drop a bomb on a row house, to “flush out” some uncooperative people. The entire block burned down, and new meaning was created for the phrase ” we had to burn down the village to save it”.

  4. CLS

    Given the subject of today’s post I would be remiss if I didn’t point out in the film “Terminator: Salvation” Skynet Central is located in what remained of San Fransisco.

    All this nonsense starts with robots remotely controlled by cops.

    This is how we get Skynet.

    1. Rengit

      Alternatively, we could end up with Robocop. True that it’s set in Detroit rather than SF, but maybe, like in Robotcop, these robots won’t work so well and instead we get human-robot cyborg good guy cops that save us from both Uzi-toting criminals and the evil corporations fostering the crime in order to 1) tank real estate values and buy it on the cheap and 2) create a market for their private security services.

      1. RCJP

        I note that your comment feature requires the author to validate “I am not a robot.”

        Kinda blatant way to silence a party to the conversation, Scott.

  5. Paleo

    On the positive side, the robots wouldn’t hang in the hallway for an hour checking their phones while kids were being shot.

  6. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    With one unconsidered exception, I think two bits from our host cover it. Paraphrased and quoted:

    1. How is it any different than the firearm the officer carries? The shoot is either good, negligent, or illegal, regardless; and

    2. ” The problem, then, isn’t robots but cops using robots.”

    The unmentioned exception – what happens the first time a robot is hacked? Even wire guided robots could have issues. I’m not sure I’d want to be the jurisdiction operating the T-1 Murderbot that goes on a rampage because Little Bobby figured out how to get the Skynet ball rolling.

Comments are closed.