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Security robot loses its job after vandalism, threats

A San Francisco animal shelter fires a Knightscope security robot after a fracas over its role with nearby homeless.

A Knightscope K-5 security robot comes with cameras and is designed to patrol outdoor areas in conjunction with human security help.
A Knightscope K-5 security robot comes with cameras and is designed to patrol outdoor areas in conjunction with human security help.

Maybe someday the robots will take all our jobs away, but this week, it was a robot that got a pink slip.

The San Francisco SPCA animal shelter had been using a 5-foot-tall Knightscope security robot. After the robot arrived in November, there was less of a problem with things like drug needles and car break-ins, and tents used by the homeless disappeared from nearby sidewalks, the shelter president told the San Francisco Business Times.

But the robot program led to other problems -- including news stories about the robot deterring nearby homeless encampments -- and now it's over, the animal shelter said.

"The SF SPCA was exploring the use of a robot to prevent additional burglaries at our facility and to deter other crimes that frequently occur on our campus -- like car break-ins, harassment, vandalism, and graffiti -- not to disrupt homeless people," the shelter said in a statement Friday. "Clearly, it backfired."

Evidently, society hasn't quite figured out yet how to handle robots with unknown abilities roaming among us -- especially if the issue is blended with other sensitive issues like handling the homeless in a city flush with well-paid tech employees.

After the robot story went viral, the shelter was vandalized twice and has "received hundreds of messages inciting violence and vandalism against our facility and encouraging people to take retribution," the shelter said. "We are a nonprofit that is extremely sensitive to the issues of homelessness."

The 398-pound K5 security robot is equipped with cameras, rolls along at 3mph and has a "commanding physical presence," Knightscope says. It can record license plates and detect wireless signals that could indicate network attacks. And it's got proximity sensors and alarms to try to deter damage.

That didn't stop some people who didn't like the SPCA robot, though. It suffered indignities such as being covered with a tarp and smeared with barbecue sauce, the shelter said.

Knightscope didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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