In a move right out of a sci-fi movie set in a grim and corrupt dystopia, San Francisco is on the cusp of authorizing the use of killer robots by the police.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in favor of approving a policy that allows police to use robots with lethal force “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics". Before the policy becomes law, there will be a second vote next week, as well as approval by the mayor. The board voted 8-3 in favor of the policy, with some members expressing concerns at the lethal force aspect, which was requested by the San Francisco Police Department, according to The Washington Post.
“There is serious potential for misuse and abuse of this military-grade technology,” Supervisor Dean Preston, who voted against the motion, said at the meeting according to CNN, "and zero showing of necessity".
The police have no plans to fit guns to robots (at time of writing), but San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Robert Rueca told The Washington Post that robots could be used to “contact, incapacitate, or disorient” dangerous suspects rather than risk the life of an officer, or could be fitted with explosives to breach fortified structures.
Bizarrely, police using a robot controlled by a human to kill another person is not without precedent. In July 2016, police in Dallas became involved in a standoff with armed suspects, who had already killed several officers. Rather than risk further people, the Dallas Police Department modified a bomb disposal robot, fitting it with a bomb. The robot was sent towards the shooters, where the bomb was deployed and one of the shooters, Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old Army veteran, was killed by it.
Like the case above, San Francisco say that robots and lethal force by those robots would only be used in extreme circumstances, but critics believe it could be dangerous to the public, inhumane, and put us on a slippery slope towards more weaponized machines.
“These robots would be a last resort,” San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told CNN, adding that the equipment is already in their possession, but they need the authorization to use it.
“If we ever have to exercise that option, it either means lives, innocent lives, have already been lost, or in the balance," he added, "and this would be the only option to neutralize that person putting those lives at risk, or the person who has taken those lives.”