Dystopia Arrives in San Francisco: Authorities Introduce Policy Granting Robots a License to Kill

(Chris Samuels /The Deseret News via AP)

In this episode of Dystopian Moments on the Left…

While I hesitate to make comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian account of a future totalitarian state in the classic “1984” while writing about the crazy goings on in today’s America, what term is better suited when dystopia finally arrives? That is if you consider killer robots taking out human beings in the streets.


The San Francisco Police Department has submitted a proposal to city officials, which is likely to be approved on November 29, that would give robots the license to use deadly force against suspects who threaten the lives of citizens or police officers — with military-style weapons, no less.

Look, I’m all in on the notion that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but — and maybe it’s just me — robots armed with military-style weapons killing human beings sounds a bit creepy and, well, Orwellian. Nonetheless, as reported by Mission Local, the draft policy reads:

Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.

San Francisco’s rules committee unanimously approved a version of the draft last week, which will face the Board of Supervisors on November 29th, where it’s likely to sail through. The Board will also be required to sign off on the purchase of any new military-style equipment, but the police will be able to replace existing equipment up to a value of $10 million without approval.


Tifanei Moyer, senior staff attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, wrote in an email, as noted by Mission Local, that the policy isn’t standard and that legal professionals and citizens should reject the idea.

We are living in a dystopian future, where we debate whether the police may use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury, or judge. This is not normal. No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal.

That’s a bit nonsensical in my book, given that an officer in the same situation, as outlined earlier, would make the same deadly force decision — or would he or she? Jennifer Tu, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee, appears to disagree:

There is a really big difference between hurting someone right in front of you, and hurting someone via a video screen.

The SFPD has 17 robots in its arsenal, 12 of which are fully functional. According to police spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca, they have never been used to attack anyone. That appears about to change. If the policy is approved as expected, it will just be a matter of time before a robot takes out a suspect.


Hell, let’s extrapolate. How long will it be before deadly robots patrol the crime-infested streets of cities across America? If it someday happens, would that be a good thing or bad? Questions abound.

On November 29, San Francisco and its citizenry will likely take a giant step forward — or would that be backward?  All the way to George Orwell’s 1984.


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