SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Officials in San Francisco recently went on the defensive over the endowed authority for the San Francisco Police Department to use “killer robots,” as critics of the endeavor have labeled them, claiming that these police-controlled robots won’t be equipped with firearms.
Instead, according to officials, these robots will have the ability to tote explosives – because apparently, local officials believe that robots wielding bombs are somehow more comforting to critics than a robot carrying a gun.
San Francisco City Supervisor Rafael Mandelman took to Twitter on November 29th to provide insight into the matter regarding San Francisco Police having received approval from the Board of Supervisors to utilize “certain technologies” that include a handful of robots primarily designed to address bomb threats and assist with reconnaissance.
“Today the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance approving [SFPD’s] policy governing the funding, acquisition, and use of certain technology. This includes seven robots designed to neutralize/dispose of bombs, and provide video reconnaissance for operators.”
Mandelman went on to address the elephant in the room that has been causing a bit of a stir over the past week with the “killer robot” narrative, confirming that in “extremely limited situations,” San Francisco Police will have the capability to use these robots to enact “deadly force.”
“Under this policy, SFPD is authorized to use these robots to carry out deadly force in extremely limited situations when risk to loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available.”
Under this policy, SFPD is authorized to use these robots to carry out deadly force in extremely limited situations when risk to loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available. 2/5
— Rafael Mandelman (@RafaelMandelman) November 30, 2022
Obviously, when the news about police-controlled robots having the ability to dole out lethal force first started making the rounds earlier in November, images of the ED-209 (of Robocop fame) began jokingly cropping up among skeptics and critics. But have no fear of gun-toting robots in San Francisco, as Mandelman cleared all this up by asserting that said robots will not be fitted with any firearms.
However, Mandelman did reiterate the “extreme circumstances” notion of the robots employing lethal force but didn’t convey precisely how said force would be carried out.
“None of the robots have firearms attached, and SFPD has no plans to attach firearms. However, in extreme circumstances it is conceivable that use of a robot might be the best and only way of dealing with a terrorist or mass shooter.”
The City Supervisor added that San Francisco Police have been using these sorts of robots for just over a decade at this point, adding that the only documented instance of any police force using a robot to carry out lethal force occurred in Dallas, Texas, back in 2016 to take out Micah Xavier Johnson, the man who killed five Dallas Police officers.
These robots have been used by SFPD since 2010, and have never been used to deliver lethal force. There is only one instance on record of a law enforcement robot being used to kill someone, in 2016 when Dallas Police used a robot to kill a sniper who had shot five officers. 4/5
— Rafael Mandelman (@RafaelMandelman) November 30, 2022
So if the robots aren’t going to have the ability to use firearms, how exactly would they render lethal force? Well, bombs, of course – just like the one did in Dallas when giving the cop-killer a healthy dose of C-4.
San Francisco Police spokesperson Allison Maxie confirmed that in certain circumstances, robots would be outfitted with explosives in order “to breach fortified structures containing violent, armed, or dangerous subjects or used to contact, incapacitate, or disorient” a suspect in the event said suspect poses “a risk of loss of life to law enforcement or other first responders.”
While the rationale behind the use of robots when dealing with violent suspects like mass shooters and the ilk are good intentioned in that the overall goal is to reduce the likelihood of police and others from coming under harm, it seems a bit odd that officials are trying to calm down critics by basically saying, “Don’t worry, they won’t have guns, they’ll just have explosives instead.”
It certainly isn’t a radical position to think that between the line of fire associated with a firearm versus the blast radius of an explosive, there could potentially be more calamitously unintended consequences with a deployed explosive gone awry.
Now, it stands to reason that in scenarios where police would use a robot to deploy some kind of explosive (ostensibly C-4 since it’s one of the most stable explosives), the individual manning the controls likely isn’t going to be some wingnut going all willy-nilly with explosives.
Furthermore, some of the criticism directed at the San Francisco Police over the matter is so irrational that it borders on hilarious, such as one critic exclaiming, “How are these robots supposedly even capable of determining when a crime has been committed, who is committing it, and what degree of force is required?”
How are these robots supposedly even capable of determining when a crime has been committed, who is committing it, and what degree of force is required?
— wouldn’t you like to know? (@fae_fiain) November 30, 2022
Evidently, San Francisco Police aren’t toting around autonomous T-1000s like this is some kind of Terminator movie – what police are using are remote-controlled robots that host a limited number of functions.
There is definitely an articulable and justifiable use case for these types of robots: limiting the propensity for innocents to be harmed by dangerous suspects. But even with such a noble intention, it doesn’t mean that the general public should completely ignore or entirely cast aside any degree of skepticism regarding the use of robotics in law enforcement in such a manner.
Overall, this is a development that folks would certainly be justified in monitoring and raising concerns where applicable, but the active alarmism of “killer robots” at this point in time seems to be a bit of an overreaction. Needless to say, San Francisco Police’s robotics branch is hardly in the league of sci-fi movies like Robocop and Chopping Mall, so the panic just isn’t warranted.
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