These are the Good Old Days

There is a broad spectrum of intriguing news parading across the Internet these days. I struggle with volume and at times with comprehension. I periodically just do not get it. 
These pages are frequently about automation. That is going to have major impacts in the coming years on employment, workplace safety, and even injury and recovery management. Artificial intelligence and robotics are here to stay. They are permeating society and will likely change our world, work and beyond. 
See e.g. Chatbot wins 160,000 Cases (June 2016), The Running Man from Pensacola (July 2015), Nero May be Fiddling (April 2017), and Robotics and Innovation (September 2016). The future is now, and yet I still don't have my flying car. In fact, even the fully automated car is looking a bit further (or farther) down the road. Apple announced this week that its autonomous car debut has been pushed to 2026. See Life Changing Seminar (May 2015). And, it is rumored this vehicle will have throwback features "like a steering wheel and pedals." 
But, as impactful as these innovations may be on the workplace, San Francisco made the news recently with their proposal to deploy Officer James Murphy on the Streets of San Francisco ((ABC, 1972-77). If you miss the first reference Officer Murphy was the lead in the film Robocop (Orion, 1987). That sci-fi adventure involves a Cyborg organism, largely robotic, with a weapon, patrolling the streets and enforcing the law with significant zeal. It is not Terminator (Paramount 1984), but it is similar. Armed robots are the work of science fiction, but now of impending California fact. 
In the news, ABC7 reports that the San Francisco government had approved its police deploying "lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations." There were those who argued this is not conducive to civil liberties. They fear such a device might "lead to the further militarization of a police force." But wait. The police claim they have no armed robots and have no plans to get any. They merely want to be able to
"deploy robots equipped with explosive charges 'to contact, incapacitate, or disorient (a) violent, armed, or dangerous suspect' when lives are at stake"
It is not about guns (at this point, in that jurisdiction, but keep reading). It is about explosives. Some might see explosive-armed robots as concerning. But, apparently, others do not.
It is, after all, San Franciso (I left my heart there once, Tony Bennet, 1962). This beautiful city has made the news various times recently. It has been recently famous for the prevalence of human excrement on public streets and sidewalks. There is even an app to help folks avoid such encounters. To make the city more appealing, its leaders have opted for open-air public urinals in its parks. The city has struggled with the unhoused, and residents have felt challenged. It is intriguing.
In August, there was coverage of San Francisco's contest for a new garbage can for city streets. The city is said to be considering the replacement of some 3,000 trash cans, and so it held a contest for new designs. The Guardian reports that they are nearing the end of that process.
The need for new cans is that too many people apparently "rummage through them and leave behind a mess.” The cans need to contain the rubbish more completely. The Guardian article concludes that among the prototypes obtained thus far "none of the models revolutionized the world of waste disposal." That is a high bar to be sure. Some have been critical of the half-million dollar expenditure thus far in pursuit of a more perfect can. One particular unit is said to have cost $20,000. One outlet has labeled the entire contest process as "bizarre."
Despite the obvious cross-marketing opportunities, there has been no report of discussions to deploy trash cans "equipped with explosive charges." But, I digress.
On the topic of police robots, San Francisco is reportedly not alone. Built In reports that there are "countless stories involving police robots." It says that robots have been used "handing out speeding tickets and patrolling streets to taking down armed suspects and diffusing bombs." The deployment of robots is apparently a decision that has already been made in some jurisdictions. 
These devices have been deployed in places such as SeoulCaliforniaSingapore, and more.  There have been reports of frustration with robot police. In 2019, NBC News reported on such a device charged with patrolling a park in Los Angeles. When a fight broke out and a bystander tried to engage the robot for help, she was frustrated. A call to 911 eventually brought aid from a human police officer, but not before one of the fight participants was injured, requiring medical attention. 
Of course, that poor LA bot was perhaps hindered by being unarmed. Perhaps it would have been more assertive if it had been "equipped with explosive charges." There have been allusions over the years to the balm of "liquid courage" for humans. Perhaps "explosive charges" could provide such courage to bots? Or guns. US News reports that just across the bay, Oakland similarly tried "to arm robots with shotguns." When public attention there led to reconsideration, they armed the robot with "pepper spray" instead. It is not explosives, but does that really make it better?
Proponents have been advocating for robotic police for years. A 2007 journal article reported that the third generation of robots had arrived. It described these as "capable of making real-life decisions and acting upon them." While such a device might be directed by a human being, there is the vision for them to act autonomously. It is frankly a scary proposition that we might actually be answerable to our "new robot overlords." As these "generations" of technology continue to evolve, where will we humans end up? Autonomous car? Where is the flying car George Jetson promised me decades ago?
But, as I polished this post for publication, The Guardian reports on December 7 that 
"San Francisco lawmakers voted to ban police robots from using deadly force on Tuesday, reversing course one week after officials had approved the practice and sparked national outrage."

This "national outrage" apparently included local protests in San Francisco. US News reports that some there held signs reading "We all saw that movie... No Killer Robots." It is unclear if that is a reference to "Robocop," "Terminator," or "The Streets of San Francisco," but apparently the sentiment was clear to the local government. In repealing the prior endorsement of killer robots, the San Francisco leaders sent the proposal back to a committee and may debate the idea again in the future. Perhaps the city can return to its former fame of excrement, urinals, and expensive waste cans?

As I upload this post, I can hear Emily Latella (Gilda Radner, RIP,  "never mind"). But, the other half of my brain is wary that the issue of arming robots will be raised again. 
Killer robots, autonomous cars, and the potential for ongoing human involvement in the world in which we live. As Cheryl Crow advised: "Raise a glass and say 'These still are the good old days.'"
By Judge David Langham
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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