Want a bleak example of our cyberpunk dystopia? Well, look no further than San Francisco, where the city is set to consider allowing cops to use robots to kill people.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors plans to vote on a proposal for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to be able to kill suspects with robots—applying the same policy that allows human cops to use deadly force against a person. If approved, the SFPD will be able to choose from seven different robots to potentially do the bloody deed.
“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,” the proposal reads.
The original draft of the SFPD proposal didn’t mention use of force being used by robots, NPR reports. However, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Aaron Peskin added a line that said, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person,” the SFPD crossed the sentence out and returned the draft. They also altered the proposal so it reflected the use of force standards applied to officers.
If passed, the SFPD will be able to apply deadly force against suspects using seven different robots, two of which can be weaponized without too much issues: the Remotec F5A, a bomb disposal robot that can be loaded with shotgun shells for the purpose of destroying explosives; and the QinetiQ TALON, a military robot that can be equipped with a machine gun.
However, the SFPD told The Daily Beast in a statement that they don’t “own or operate robots outfitted with lethal force options” and it wouldn’t be outfitting their robots with guns in order to neutralize suspects—they’re going to give them bombs instead.
“As an intermediate force option, robots could potentially be equipped with explosive charges to breach fortified structures containing violent, armed, or dangerous subjects or used to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect who pose a risk of loss of life to law enforcement or other first responders by use of any other method, approach, or contact,” SFPD said in the statement.
They added, “While an explosive charge may be considered an intermediate force option, it could potentially cause injury or be lethal. Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives.”
If employed, it wouldn’t be the first time a city police department utilized robots to neutralize suspects. In 2016, Dallas cops used a robot armed with C4 to kill a man suspected of using a sniper rifle to target police officers during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. It was the first recorded instance of a robot being used by cops to kill a person.
The proposed killbot policy predictably has experts and activists concerned about the implications of using deadly force against humans with such devices. “We have a very clear position that we do not think in a domestic policing context robots should ever be armed,” Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Vice. “We really fear you’d be seeing these armed robots coming out to every protest on standby and that’s just a very dangerous situation.”
Ryan Calo, a law and information science professor at the University of Washington, told NPR that there wouldn’t be any reason for a robot to use deadly force because “you send robots into a situation and there isn’t any reason to use lethal force because no one is actually endangered.”
The policy proposal comes a few months after a group of robot makers including Boston Dynamics signed an open letter pledging never to weaponize their machines. “Weaponized applications of these newly-capable robots will also harm public trust in the technology in ways that damage the tremendous benefits they will bring to society,” the letter read.
But with police department and military budgets blowing up like a T-800 driving an oil tanker, that leaves a lot of money on the table for less ethically rigorous robot companies to snatch up. For now, the SF Board of Supervisors is set to vote on the policy at 2pm local time. Hopefully, they’ll leave the Robocops to Hollywood.