The Future

Robot security guards will be pointless until they’re terrifying

The curious case of the gas station security robot and the surveillance state that ate itself.
The Future

Robot security guards will be pointless until they’re terrifying

The curious case of the gas station security robot and the surveillance state that ate itself.

Terror is gripping the fair streets of San Francisco. Petty theft occurs in broad daylight. Vandals strike with impunity. Tech workers cower behind their electric unicycles. Something must be done.

Enter an unlikely hero: The K5 security robot. Crime doesn’t sleep, but neither do robots. They just run out of batteries.

They’re made by company called Knightscope (no relation to the Knight Rider), a company inspired by, according to its founders, the Sandy Hook shooting (???). There are currently four different models, with varying degrees of sophistication. They patrol set areas and, should they detect something abnormal — say, sudden temperature changes or noises that exceed ~100 decibels (apparently the lowest volume with which crime can occur) they call the cops. One wonders who they’d call if the loud noise is caused by police sirens.

The K5 model, aka SnitchBot 2000, is roughly five-feet tall and egg-shaped, evoking an Apple-designed butt plug. It moves at a swift 3 mph, sure to outrun even the most athletic criminal. It scans 1,500 license plates per minute, features omnidirectional imaging, HD video recording, and thermal sensors. It absorbs ~90 terrabytes of data every 24 hours. Printed on its side is a warning: “Do not play on or around.” To those who doubt its patriotism, a small gray-and-white American flag sticker is affixed to its chest.

Since the company’s founding in 2013, the robots have gradually appeared around the Bay Area, defending public shopping corridors. Under its watchful gaze, supposedly, criminals will no longer feel emboldened to impede commerce. In mid-July, according to Fox KTVU, one suddenly appeared to watch over a Shell Station on 8th and Harrison.

The neighborhood south of Market St., called SoMa for short by salivating real estate developers, is one of San Francisco’s “most valuable” neighborhoods. It consists of lofts inside which artists used to live, but are now mostly inhabited by startups and the kinds of people who unironically refer to themselves as “creatives.” The impulse to install a robot security guard at this location is somewhat understandable. Despite (or because of) the rapid gentrification, a quick glance at a crime map shows that the area experiences a regular amount of theft, fraud, and vandalism. All stuff clearly too dangerous to be stopped by humans alone.

It’s hard not to be skeptical of their utility. Whether or not these robot cops can actually prevent crime is unproven. The gas station was already heavily surveilled. Multiple cameras gaze down upon the property, watching all who pass. Crime continues. It seems unlikely that adding more cameras could do anything to correct the systematic problems of a negligent, dystopian city.

To me, it’s yet another example of the often baffling nature of a lot of Silicon Valley’s attempts at solving societal ills — over-engineered Band-Aids to complicated, entrenched problems that seem only to enrich their creators. They’re often inspired by sci-fi, but seem to miss the critical commentary of such works. One wonders what might result if the money spent building new consumer products (future trash, all) was instead diverted to the public good. [Gets dragged away by goons, all hired via a gig economy site].

Despite its apparent flaws, the robot is still good for something: passive online entertainment.

Filmmaker Brian King lives in an apartment adjacent to the gas station, and set up a camera to observe the robot. The robot watches, and the internet watches back.

Here’s one stream — please only continue reading once you’ve finished watching all ten-ish consecutive hours. I’ll wait.

Each weekend, the stream goes up, and one can watch K5 roll back and forth. It initially started as a game that King dubbed the SoMa Robot Weekend Challenge. The premise: How long would the robot survive before someone fucked it up? “The livestream was inspired by a Reddit thread I made when the robot initially appeared,” King explained via email. “People expected the robot to be vandalized or destroyed quickly, and I thought it would be interesting to capture the moment if it happened.”

The robots do seem to attract trouble. One K5 in SF was knocked over and smeared with shit. Apparently, nobody likes a snitch. And when no one is around to fuck with them, they take matters into their own steel claws and kill themselves, like the one in D.C. that attempted to drown itself.

Surprisingly, the robot has now survived multiple weekends at the gas station unscathed. Maybe it’s not for lack of trying. Perhaps the bots are one step ahead. According to a FAQ on Knighscope’s websites, they have “several features including proximity sensors, escalating alarm stages and the like to protect the robots, but why give away all secrets here...”

Despite the lack of vandalism, the feed remains fascinating, as kind of an unintentional internet/surveillance art project. Vérité footage of a gas station, and the ineffective robot sworn to keep the unleaded flowing peacefully. Parallels could be drawn to the work of Dries Depoorter and Trevor Paglen and BIT and Eva and Franco Mattes and Jennifer Ringley, among many others. Somebody get Rhizome on the horn.

The best parts of the footage are, by far, when people actually notice the robot. They stare at it and contemplate it.

Most of these people take photos of it. Many of those photos are selfies.

Sometimes they have their phones out before they even enter the frame, apparently going out of their way to see it.

Some of the images taken on the people’s phones end up on Instagram.

A post shared by Rick Lui (@i2ikei) on

A post shared by Behrooz Shariati (@pax__americana) on

This is our surveillance state eating itself. People watching robots watching people watching robots, and those images getting monetized by still more robots.

Anecdotally, the minor crime at/around the gas station hasn’t stopped since K5 arrived. “People are still hanging out at the gas station overnight, there are still fights, and there are still people peeing on the walls,” King says. “Now they're just in the company of a very expensive robot.” Now, finally, there’s thousands of terabytes of wall urination videos. Sweet.

I initially planned to end this piece with a pilgrimage to the gas station to see the robot, to snap a photo of King’s camera watching the robot, and then screengrabbing myself on the feed taking the photo, in an attempt at excessive meta-photography that I figured would (maybe?) be kind of funny and (potentially?) cause the universe to collapse. Unfortunately, the feed was down. I emailed King, asking what happened. “No plans to put it back up,” he eventually replied. “Everything has been peaceful at the Shell.”

Bummer. I decided to check it out anyway. Off the BART, then a quick walk across SoMa, past a place inexplicably selling $18 sandwiches, and finally to the gas station, which looked just like a gas station. Except for the Snitchbot, which patrolled a short looping path around the entrance to its convenience store. Its movements were janky, and it wobbled slightly on the uneven pavement.

I watched it while standing beneath a big billboard for a weed app startup. As people stopped for gas, a few would get out of the cars and rush over for a picture with the robot. One woman passed it on her way into the store, pulling her kid along by the hand. “It’s taking our photo!” she said to a guy nearby, adding sarcastically, “wanna report it for sexual harassment.”

I walked closer to the robot and it stopped in front of me. Was I blocking its way? Or did I appear suspicious? The front of it was smeared with crud. Bird shit caked one of its lenses. And there was a lipstick on its collar. Someone had kissed it.

Computer... Enhance

Clearly, it has fans. After I took a few photos, and it took a few million photos of me, it continued on to watch some other people.

Snitchbots are a novelty now, thankfully, and it’s heartening that their presence still attracts attention. But the frightening nature of this kind of tech is its gradual, almost inevitable normalization, if allowed to proliferate. The livestream was eventually taken down for perceived uneventfulness, after all. It’s easy to imagine in a few years, robots just like K5 crowding our cities, watching our every move. This isn’t paranoid speculation — for grim foreshadowing, just observe the massive surveillance state in China. Their pervasiveness will eventually render them largely invisible. Then, who watches the bot men?