Public spaces are like all you can eat buffets: the spaces are actually only as open and public as the authorities will permit them to be, sort of like how once you enter your third hour at the buffet, the owner’s going to start standing behind your chair and clearing his throat, regardless of how much stomach capacity you have left. Which means that you usually get about twenty minutes on that park bench before a security guard comes along to suggest you “move along, buddy, this ain’t a Starbucks.” Or, this being 2018, a robot buzzes over to beam your photo into a facial-recognition database while warming up its tasers.
From DC to San Francisco, robotic security guards are now a reality. The security robot that patrols Washington Harbour made the news last year when it fell into a fountain, almost “drowned,” and had to go to the shop for repairs. (People even made a tongue-in-cheek memorial for the departed robot.) The advantages of robot security guards are obvious for anyone who’s ever worked alongside human security guards; robots are tireless, impervious to weather, and would never be caught napping in a bathroom stall while thieves make off with $30,000 worth of printer ink cartridges from the storeroom. Of course, those are all management-side benefits. The people actually being monitored by these robots don’t always like it.
In San Francisco, the local SPCA rented a security robot to patrol the sidewalks around its headquarters after homeless encampments sprouted up around the building. The very first week the robot was on patrol, the homeless people allegedly tipped the robot over, smeared barbecue sauce over its sensors, and put a tarp over it. Clearly, they weren’t fans. The security robots are rented out by a Mountain View, CA startup called Knightscope, which offers a whole series of security robots, ranging from the harmless-looking-by-design K3, which is like a cross between a Star Wars droid and Danny Devito, to the K7, a “rugged” 770-pound Hummer-shaped robot that’s suggested for use in prisons. The K3, which is the model patrolling Washington Harbour and the SFSPCA, has no offensive capabilities – only photographic and audio recording devices, which it can stream back to the control room. (That’s right, it’s not even really a robot security guard – it’s a robot snitch!) The more rugged ones don’t, at present, offer any offensive weaponry, but if you don’t think that’s coming in the next decade or so, well, you need to watch more “Black Mirror.”
But there are more passive ways to shoo the public from public spaces. The infamous homeless spikes are effective, but also proved to be a public relations nightmare for the tone deaf local governments who thought medieval booby traps were a reasonable response to 13-year-old skateboarders. In San Francisco, the Department of Public Works is trying a new method of people dispersion – big rocks. (Isn’t it sort of weird that the world capital of chill hippies is also the world leader in cutting-edge methods of getting rid of chill hippies?) After the police cleared out a huge homeless encampment under a highway overpass, the DPW scattered massive boulders around to make it difficult for campers to return. The big rocks cost the city $10,000, which probably isn’t the wisest use of taxpayer funds, and local homeless people pointed out that they could easily get together and drag them out of the way. In the meantime, they’ve just set up their tents on nearby public sidewalks.