San Francisco police are one step closer to using killer robots

San Francisco police officers could soon get help on the job. On Tuesday, city officials approved a policy allowing officers to use deadly force with ground-based robots, per The Washington Post.

But that’s just the first ballot. Next week the board, which has reportedly had heated debates over the measure, will will vote again. If the policy passes the second vote, it goes to Mayor London Breed’s desk. After that, the measure can become municipal law with two rounds of approval and the signature of the mayor.

As police brutality continues to plague communities, politicians are taking precautions by limiting what situations require robots. The equipment is needed “when the threat of death of members of the public or officials is imminent and officials are unable to suppress the threat after using alternative options for violence or de-escalation tactics.”

What robots will the San Francisco police have access to?

Although officials will use the technology for deadly reasons, its design will not be. The policy calls for using ground-based robots already owned by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). At this point, the department reportedly has 12 working robots. Officers control the technology remotely when they need to access situations, investigate areas unavailable to them, enter, defuse or remove bombs, and negotiate rescue and hostage situations.

That said SFPD spokesman Robert Rueca WP that her department has no plans to hand over weapons to her robots. Instead, officials will only use the technology in “extreme circumstances” to “contact, disable, or disorient” dangerous suspects. If approved, the robots can be equipped with explosives on a case-by-case basis.

“No policy can anticipate every conceivable situation or extraordinary circumstance that officers may face,” said Allison Maxie, public information officer for the SFPD NPR. “The SFPD must be prepared and able to respond appropriately.”

Police have used killer robots in the past

The measure was first proposed to the city’s board of directors in September. One of the early drafts said: “Robots must not be used to use force against people.”

Corresponding NPR, the SFPD deleted this particular sentence from the draft with a red line. At their request, politics was changed indicate when this is appropriate.

This concept of using robots for lethal force is not new. NPR reports that the Dallas Police Department was the first to use the technology in 2016. Officer armed a bomb disposal robot with a pound of C-4 explosive, ending an hour-long standoff with a suspect who shot five police officers. The suspect died after officers detonated the makeshift bomb.

What do experts think of the directive?

As mentioned, the measure still has to clear two hurdles before it becomes a city charter. But that hasn’t stopped experts in both law enforcement and robotics from talking about it. And the opinions fall on both sides of the debate: this is helpful and That’s a terrible idea.

“If I were in charge and had that ability, it wouldn’t be first on my menu,” said former LAPD Lt. Adam Bercovici WP. “But it would be an option if it was really bad.”

Paul Scharre is a military weapons expert and author who helped create the “US Policy on Autonomous Weapons Used in War.” He spoke to NPR on the measure proposed by San Francisco.

“For the military [robots are] used in battle against an enemy and the purpose of it is to kill the enemy. That is not and should not be the purpose of police forces,” said Scharre. “They are there to protect citizens and there may be situations where they need to use deadly force, but this should absolutely be a last resort.”

Scharre believes officials haven’t fully thought out the measure, and if the policy is approved by city law, he says: “It can be very difficult to go back.”

Ryan Calo, who studies robotics, asked questions about the technology that accidentally harms innocent people and who takes responsibility if that should happen.

“We have to ask ourselves if we want to be in a society where the police are killing people with robots,” Calo said. “It feels so deeply dehumanizing and militaristic.” San Francisco police are one step closer to using killer robots

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