How San Francisco turned against robots
San Francisco’s anti-tech backlash has a new target: robots. This is a place that ought to love artificial intelligence. After all, Silicon Valley is home to some of the most advanced robotics labs in the world. But when it comes to sharing its sidewalks with these technological wonders, San Francisco has said, “Forget it.”
The city recently cracked down on delivery robots — autonomous devices such as those tested by Yelp’s Eat24 service last year, that travel on the sidewalk to distribute food and other essentials to customers. New rules limit them to a speed of 3mph, and require a human operator nearby. Moreover, only nine delivery robots can be tested in the city at any time, dashing the hopes of start-ups that had envisioned fleets of self-driving bots taking hot pizza to hungry millennials.
Like many Silicon Valley innovations, the robots have found their least welcoming audience at home. In fact, several of the city’s most prominent start-ups have faced some of their toughest opposition here.
Take Airbnb, the accommodation company. In 2016, San Francisco passed a law on home-sharing that was so restrictive, Airbnb sued the city over it. (That lawsuit has been settled, but all Airbnb hosts in SF must still obtain a business licence and registration before they can let their homes.) The same goes for Uber and Lyft: city leaders routinely lambast them for causing congestion and double parking. More than half of all traffic violations in the downtown area are attributable to Uber and Lyft drivers, according to a police study.
Amid this broader antipathy towards tech, robots have come to occupy a special place of loathing in San Francisco. An incident in December highlighted the depths of the city’s dislike.
It began innocuously, with an animal shelter in a high-crime area paying for a robot “security guard” to help monitor its campus and the surrounding streets. The 5ft, 400lb droid takes photographs and records video footage, and has the ability to summon human help when it detects unusual activity. Made by Knightscope, a start-up based in the Valley, this autonomous device is most commonly deployed to roam parking lots and malls. (One even fell into a mall fountain earlier this year, prompting an internet outpouring over the robot who “drowned himself”.)
The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins. However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped. Unknown assailants covered the robot with a tarp and smeared barbecue sauce on its sensors to block them. The president of the pet shelter at first alleged the perpetrators came from a nearby homeless encampment but later said she wasn’t sure.
News of the kidnapped robot spread, and the town quickly took aim at the pet shelter, accusing it of deploying a robot to keep its homeless neighbours away. The shelter received “hundreds of messages inciting violence and vandalism against our facility”, it said in a statement. The city of San Francisco weighed in too, threatening to fine the shelter for operating the robot on public sidewalks without a licence. To quell the outrage, the shelter sent the machine back to its manufacturer.
There are several lessons to draw from this tale. First, the issue of homelessness never fails to spark controversy in San Francisco, where the squalor of the public streets is in stark contrast to the wealth that exists behind closed doors.
The second is that it is easier to blame the robot. Instead of asking why the neighbourhood has become so dangerous that a pet shelter should need protection, it’s more convenient to target a machine.
The third lesson is that robots do not have a home-court advantage in San Francisco. The opposite is true. After the crackdown, robots will not be delivering pizza, and security droids will become scarcer. The robots will still serve one purpose, though — as a scapegoat for problems whose roots are all too human.
Leslie Hook is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent