Robocop becomes reality as San Francisco police approve killer robots

A man is disarmed by a robot in Arizona  (AP)
A man is disarmed by a robot in Arizona (AP)

San Francisco’s ruling Board of Supervisors has voted to let the city’s police use robots that can kill.

The SFPD maintained that its troop of around a dozen droids armed with explosives will only be used as lethal options where there is a life-threatening risk to civilians and officers, and no alternatives are feasible.

Dr Catherine Connolly, from the group Stop Killer Robots, said the move was a “slippery slope” that could distance humans from killing.

The city’s police - the SFPD - told the BBC they do not currently operate any robots equipped with lethal force. A spokesperson for the police said, “Robots could potentially be equipped with explosive charges to breach fortified structures containing violent, armed, or dangerous subjects”.

They also said robots could be used to “incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspects who pose a risk of loss of life”.

Are we seeing Robocop come to life? (Handout)
Are we seeing Robocop come to life? (Handout)

In the proposal, it stated: “It is particularly important that officers apply proportionality and critical decision-making when encountering a subject who is armed with a weapon other than a firearm”.

The measure passed, with an amendment on Tuesday (November 29), specifying that officers could only use robots wielding deadly force after employing alternative de-escalation tactics.

The board also stipulated that only a limited number of high-ranking officers could authorise its use.

While reminiscent of the brutal Eighties sci-fi Robocop, the fact is that the current crop of droids utilised by police are far from autonomous killing machines. In the UK, police-controlled robots are mainly used for bomb disposal and to inspect areas and vehicles. The same goes for the Remotec model listed in the SFPD’s equipment policy, which is described as a heavy-duty robot that has stair climbing ability and an arm capable of lifting 65lb.

But there are ways to modify the bots that indicate how they could be used with lethal force. Notably, the SFPD’s droid can be loaded with 12-gauge shotgun shells currently used to detonate bombs from afar. The same droid was armed with an explosive and used to kill a suspect in Dallas in 2016 after a shootout had left five police officers dead and several others wounded, demonstrating how the machine can turn deadly. At the time, the Dallas Police Department said the robot was deployed “as a last resort, to deliver an explosion device to save the lives of officers and citizens.”

Other robotic equipment mentioned in the SFPD’s proposal includes a rugged bot that can help its operator investigate dangerous material from a safe distance using video and audio surveillance, and a throwable micro-bot that enables operators to view indoor or outdoor environments.

Meanwhile, New York police briefly used a robot dog to scour crime scenes and assist in hostage situations, before ditching it due to a privacy backlash. The French Army has also previously used the four-legged machine, known as Spot, which businesses can purchase from tech company Boston Dynamics, during training exercises.