San Francisco U-turn on ‘killer robots’: Are we any safer as a result?

In December 2022, San Francisco lawmakers voted to overturn a decision to allow police robots to wield deadly force.

In a controversial policy proposal, the 17 robots currently used by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) could have been equipped with explosive charges to take out active shooters or suicide bombers in ‘emergency’ situations.

While the policy was initially approved by lawmakers, officials have since overturned the policy in response to pressure from civil rights groups.

Bomb disposal robot

Rise of the killer robots

In an article published in The Conversation in 2019, I argue that killer robots already exist, and they’ve been here a very long time. This is because when we think of ‘robots’ often what we really mean is any form of technology with some kind of autonomous element that allows it to perform a task without the need for direct intervention.

In the case of the SFPD, the proposed ‘killer robots’ are actually remote control vehicles piloted by serving police officers. The idea being that the SFPD might send their robots ahead of them into dangerous situations in order to reduce the risk of officers being killed or injured in the line of duty.

In theory, this argument seems to make a lot of sense. The job of police officers is a risky one – especially in the US, where gun crime is rife. Indeed, CNN reports that mass shootings in the US in 2022 could be the second-highest year on record, with the Gun Violence Archive reporting 333 officers killed or injured.[1]

And yet there is a problem…

According to the original policy proposals, the weaponised robots would be equipped with explosive charges – weapons hardly known for their accuracy. There are also concerns that the use of such robots may further exacerbate the disproportionate number of suspects killed who come from black or ethnic minority backgrounds.

We might even wonder what the standard operating procedure would be for deploying such killer robots. Given that these machines would effectively offer a ‘risk free’ way to face off against potentially armed and dangerous suspects, then there is every chance that offers may find they deploy the robots more and more frequency in order to reduce risks to themselves.

There is also then the ‘slippery slope’ argument that leads us to ask: where might the use of deadly robots stop?

A question of trust

Clearly, there are a lot of issues with the deployment killer robots – far more than I can fit in a short article. However, what is particularly concerning is the way the proposed (and thankfully, rejected) policy shows us a clear direction of travel for the deployment of robots in the future.

While killer robots have been used on battlefields for many years now, the idea that they could and indeed should be used in a civilian setting is a watershed moment. While there are a great many debates around the use of drones to pre-emptively kill terror suspects[2] on foreign soil, there is at least an argument that suggests such action is a form of self-defence (whether you agree with the argument or not).

However, in the case of armed robots in a civilian setting, the state is now turning its attention on its own citizens, operating within its own territory. As such, arguments about geopolitics and global security simply do not apply.

More than that, there are also questions about the legitimacy of police behaviours in the past, which have rightly led to record levels of mistrust in the police in the USA – especially in the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Gun enthusiast inspects a rifle at the NRA annual convention.

The elephant in the room…

Clearly, trust is a major issue when it comes to the deployment of killer robots in any form – not least in a civilian setting. Even if the robots themselves are not ‘autonomous’ as we might understand the term, they are being controlled by humans who may not themselves be perceived to be completely trustworthy.

And yet there is another elephant in the room, one that often gets glossed over in these discussions: US gun laws and the power of the gun lobby.

In terms of gun violence, the USA stands as a major outlier in the developed world. According to Amnesty International, more than 39,000 men, women and children are killed with guns each year, with more than 360 people sustaining some form of firearms injury every single day.

Given these startling figures, it really is no wonder that police forces would be looking to find ways to reduce risks to officers and members of the public. Indeed, what we have here is a civilian arms race. While members of the public can go out and buy assault rifles and all manner of exotic weapons usually saved for the battlefield, it is no wonder police forces are seeking to take the next logical step and bring robots to the fight.

[1] Figures correct as of 26th December 2022.

[2] I must stress, they are suspects.

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