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San Francisco Is Really, Really Worried about Robots

December 8, 2017

Well, this seems ironic. It may be home to some of the most innovative tech companies on Earth, but it appears that San Francisco has an aversion to robots. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the city has just put draconian restrictions on multi-wheeled delivery bots—such as those made by Starship Technologies, pictured above—that are being tested on the city’s sidewalks to carry food and packages to customers.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors says that only nine such robots can operate across the city at any time, and companies can have no more than three robots each on the city’s streets. There’s more: the robots will be largely limited to streets in industrial areas, must not travel faster than three miles per hour, and must be under constant human supervision.

Now, a city swarming with experimental robots doesn’t sound like a great idea. Nobody wants armies of half-baked bots rolling unsupervised through densely packed streets causing accidents. But nine machines across an entire city? That seems rather measly, and forbidding companies from testing their robots in residential areas means they can’t gain valuable experience in their key target market.

(Robot makers can, however, take some small comfort from the fact that one supervisor, who wanted to ban the robots from San Francisco altogether, didn’t carry the day.)

San Francisco’s latest knee-jerk reaction to robots is part of a broader pattern. Earlier this year, the city floated the prospect of putting a tax on robots (see “San Francisco Will Consider a Tax on Robots”). The suggestion is that such a tax could raise money to fund a universal basic income, or pay for retraining people whose jobs are lost to automation.

But if such a tax is ever going to generate revenue, the city will need to allow the robots to go about their business in the first place.

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