San Francisco city supervisors approved the use of remote-controlled robots with lethal force on Nov. 29. The board voted 8-to-3 to advance the move, allowing “the police to deploy a robot with deadly force in extraordinary circumstances”.
The bold move has caused a huge national debate over using weaponized robots in American cities. Advocates say the action would only be used in extreme situations and save lives, and opponents say it would lead to the further militarisation of the police force.
Assistant chief of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) David Lazar reportedly cited the Las Vegas mass shooting gunman in 2017 as an example:
“He’s shooting, people are pinned down, the police are pinned down. We would then think to ourselves, ‘OK, this is a possible option.'”
SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie reportedly confirmed that the department does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns. But it could equip robots with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect”.
The first time a robot loaded with explosives to kill a suspect in the US was in 2016. The decision was made after a sniper had killed two police officers, and several were seriously injured.
There was a rally in front of San Francisco City Hall protest against the move on Monday, Dec. 5. Members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation were among the rally and demanded a halt to the program.
Board president Shamann Walton reportedly attended the rally, stating it was essential to take a stand now or risk continuing “to weaponize police departments versus focus on the reform that we’ve all fought for for decades.”
What are Killer Robots…
According to Human Rights Watch, “fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” would be able to select and engage targets without meaningful human control. ”
“There are serious doubts that fully autonomous weapons would be capable of meeting international humanitarian law standards, including the rules of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity, while they would threaten the fundamental right to life and principle of human dignity.”
What the SFPD has described as the robot in question may not fit Human Rights Watch’s “killer robot” definition.
On Tuesday, Dec. 6, San Francisco supervisors abruptly reversed the lethal police robot policy in a final vote for the ordinance. Five board members who voted for the procedure last week changed their minds and voted to send the move back to the rules committee for changes.