The robot regulatory culture that is San Francisco

by on January 3, 2018 at 6:41 am in Law, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

The city recently cracked down on delivery robots — autonomous devices such as those tested by Yelp’s Eat24 service last year, that travel on the sidewalk to distribute food and other essentials to customers. New rules limit them to a speed of three miles an hour, and require a human operator nearby. Moreover, only nine delivery robots can be tested in the city at any time, dashing the hopes of start-ups that had envisioned fleets of self-driving bots taking hot pizza to hungry millennials.


The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins. However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped. Unknown assailants covered the robot with a tarp and smeared barbecue sauce on its sensors to block them. The president of the pet shelter at first alleged the perpetrators came from a nearby homeless encampment but later said she wasn’t sure.

That is from Leslie Hook at the FT.

1 Tom T. January 3, 2018 at 7:12 am

The rule about a human operator nearby reminds me of the early 20th century laws about cars, requiring a flag man to walk in front of the vehicle, for instance. I would guess that the drone robots would be less intrusive upon foot traffic than bike messengers, but perhaps that varies by location.


2 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 7:47 am

Let’s not forget that robots for human interaction are pretty crap right now. Anyone who puts them on the street is showboating or running a scam. In fact my guess is that a $100k robot is leased for a few bucks an hour because some teachers’ retirement fund was slammed into a terrible venture fund.

It is all about the burn rate.


3 dan1111 January 3, 2018 at 8:21 am

These activities are for R&D testing purposes.


4 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 8:48 am

Not the way I would do it. Because obviously a “security robot” that can be captured by a tarp was not ready to enter production.


5 Al January 3, 2018 at 9:46 am

Yeah, but who would entrust you with any capital?


6 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 9:54 am

Man. You should try upping your game. Say something, anything, intelligent about robots and “AIs” in a customer facing role.

What’s hilarious to me is that rolling security robots are such stale Sci-fi. They’re Daleks, which only work if they are many, murderous, and indestructible. A “friendly” security robot can be none of those.

Modern writers will at least fly a security drone, and recognize even then a survival rate for every sortie. Paint balls. Eagles. Whatever.

7 Anonymous January 3, 2018 at 9:57 am

Look up the dictionary definition of “research and development.”


8 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 10:00 am

Look up “production and deployment.”

Are the definitions different? Yes. Yes they are.

Those poor guys at the pet shelter paid. They were customers. They were not charging (as they probably should have) to provide a test environment.

9 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 10:07 am

By the way, if you want to see some real R&D, go to a DARPA robot challenge. Many are open to the public, and loads of fun.

After you see 3 or 4 top flight robots fall over trying to open a door you will also reduce your expectations.

10 Tom January 3, 2018 at 10:13 am

After you see 3 or 4 top flight robots fall over trying to open a door you will also reduce your expectations.

It means if they rebel against manking and try to kill me, I can hide behind the door? But what if they hire human collaborationists to open doors for them? It is my bigest fear nowadays. Should I consider betraying manking to our new robotic overlords?

11 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 10:19 am

Tom .. good plan.

12 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 6:32 am

There’s a short story waiting to be written about the first post-human intelligence AI corrupting and suborning it’s human staffers to it’s will. The humans gain everything and lose everything at the same time.


13 Anon7 January 3, 2018 at 5:10 pm

Thugs won’t be deterred, but the robot’s main function is surveillance and deterrence, not RoboCop-like strength. Like many other security devices, it is (at present) relatively easily defeated but seemed to be mildly effective against non-thugs. Of course it would be better if thugs and vagrants were shoved off the streets.


14 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 8:49 am

What is your “tarp fix” dan?


15 Brian Donohue January 3, 2018 at 9:02 am

…in which ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ identifies lousy governance standards among public-sector pensions (who pays for such poor governance? teachers or taxpayers?) as a factor in hurrying robots into service before said robots can disable potential vandals.


16 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 9:10 am

Too bad there isn’t a Fiduciary Rule to protect those naive teachers from the hucksters.


17 Brian Donohue January 3, 2018 at 9:21 am

The teachers aren’t at risk, it’s the taxpayers duh. You’re all about governance, don’t you know an agency problem when you see one?


18 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 9:25 am

Of course it is an agency problem, which is why I used the real broker’s term for it above. “Slammed.” As in “I slammed them into a dog of a venture fund.”

I am against slamming, for the Fiduciary Rule, and protecting all naive stewards of our retirees.

Not you? You want finance red in tooth and claw, and just demand that the teachers be the best fighters?

19 Brian Donohue January 3, 2018 at 10:56 am

Yeah, you don’t get it. Teachers have no skin in the game here- it’s a defined benefit plan where financial risks are borne entirely by taxpayers, and it is taxpayers who are being hard done by here. They aren’t at the table when investment decisions are made. And investment decisions are made with a goal of earning a 7%+ annual rate of return which is needed to demonstrate that these benefits “only” cost 15% of pay instead of 25% of pay.

This is not something that “the Fiduciary Rule” would solve. These are-multi billion dollar players, big boys. The Fiduciary Rule is armed largely at retail or other unsophisticated investors- it doesn’t really apply to defined benefit pensions, which face a different set of agency issues.

There are plenty of “fiduciary rules” on the books today that would seem to bear on the issue, but somehow, nothing ever happens. That’s because the lawyer’s solution (make a rule!) is inadequate to deal with the plain incentives various actors in the drama face. In short, labor (teachers) and management (administrators) have a clear incentive to underprice pensions and then take risks to justify the assumptions used in the underpricing. Heads they win, tails taxpayers lose, either way, the pensions get paid.

In the private sector, governance standards for pensions are much higher and this type of “slamming” much rarer.

20 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 3, 2018 at 11:23 am

I guess I am more cynical than you today. I think fiduciary rules never seem to bear, because of course not. They are window dressing, while every fund manager takes as much as he can by direct and indirect fees as possible.

Do you think those bad mortgage bonds and derivatives were *only* sold to teachers? Teachers are a nice placeholder for well-meaning but naive folk, but they aren’t the only naive folk in the world.

21 Brian Donohue January 3, 2018 at 12:05 pm

My default setting is cynical, but in this case I am burdened with an understanding of what actually happened, unlike journalist Ellen Schultz.

When Ellen types: “No one disputes that there’s a retirement crisis, but the crisis was no demographic accident. It was manufactured by an alliance of two groups: top executives and their facilitators in the retirement industry – benefits consultants, insurance companies, and banks – all of whom played a huge and hidden role in the death spiral of American pensions and benefits.”

She makes it clear that she doesn’t understand that the fundamental problem, what really broke pensions, were capital markets, particularly a decline in long-term interest rates from 8% at the end of 1999 to 3% today. Even in a world of perfect governance, pensions likely would not have survived at most companies, because private employers are burdened with the discipline of ensuring that costs don’t exceed revenues as a matter of viability. So yes Ellen, there was some nefarious corporate behavior and counterproductive service providers, but these are footnotes to the larger story (which is not merely an American story anyway.)

In the end, apart from bankruptcies (steel in late 1970s, airlines in early 2000s), employers are on track to fulfill every promise made to pensioners, despite the fact that these promises ended up costing 2-3 times as much as originally anticipated, and even the bankruptcies are funded by a “system tax” (similar to FDIC for banks), rather than taxpayers generally.

The public sector is mercifully free of such cost/revenue discipline, the governance issues there are one or two orders of magnitude larger than in the private sector, so there the problem merely burgeons, and as long as there’s enough money in the trust to pay this year’s benefits, the can is repeatedly kicked, and Ellen can stand on the sidelines and shake her pom poms. Go team!

22 dan1111 January 3, 2018 at 8:22 am

Robots feel more free in China than San Francisco.


23 Charbes A. January 3, 2018 at 9:17 am

At least some of them say so.


24 JWatts January 3, 2018 at 9:47 am



25 Ray Lopez January 3, 2018 at 12:32 pm

plus 17 JWatts? 🙂 If my Binary coded decimal is right…


26 msgkings January 3, 2018 at 12:38 pm

1001 binary = 9 decimal


27 Anonymous January 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm

I was tempted to “xor 0001001” and defeat his addition!

28 JWatts January 3, 2018 at 2:28 pm

(0001001 xor 0001001) – 1

For the Win!

29 Anonymous January 3, 2018 at 2:34 pm


Oh no!

30 Alistair January 4, 2018 at 6:36 am

This has been a filter to identify those most apt to co-operate with their New Robot Overlords.

31 Charbes A. January 3, 2018 at 8:24 am

“However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped.”

So the most expensive piece was srolen, but aside that it was all OK.


32 So Much For Subtlety January 3, 2018 at 8:26 am

The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins.

Pets, cars *and* robots seem an odd mix.

Surely there is a better solution to this – just make sure you’re sheltering some pets called Cujo and let them out at night.


33 JWatts January 3, 2018 at 9:48 am

And make sure the car Christine is parked there.


34 So Much For Subtlety January 3, 2018 at 6:44 pm

You know, I think this is the start of a beautiful film script. Or at least better than anything Hollywood put out last year.


35 rayward January 3, 2018 at 8:34 am

“New rules limit them [robots] to a speed of three miles an hour . . . .” Google’s engineers have stated that autonomous cars have to be limited to 30-35 mph if they share the road with non-autonomous vehicles. Is that the regulatory culture that is Google?


36 Al January 3, 2018 at 9:51 am



37 JWatts January 3, 2018 at 9:57 am

Waymo (The Google subsidiary) limits the prototypes to a maximum 35 mph during testing on open roads. No one ever claimed that the cars could never exceed 35 mph. Just that that is the chosen limit during initial testing.


38 msgkings January 3, 2018 at 12:21 pm

Impossible, Google is just an advertising company. I learned that from you.


39 B.B. January 3, 2018 at 10:31 am

Gives a whole new meaning to “regulatory capture.”


40 Axa January 3, 2018 at 11:11 am

Yesterday, it was not OK to skate or ride a bicycle on a sidewalk.

Today, some people think a robot rolling at bicycle speeds in the sidewalk it’s OK.

Why robots are OK while bicycles are not?


41 JWatts January 3, 2018 at 11:52 am

“Today, some people think a robot rolling at bicycle speeds in the sidewalk it’s OK.”

That seems to be strawman position. Average bicycle speed is around 10 mph. I don’t think anyone is in favor of a large robot cruising around the sidewalks that fast. Now granted, if it’s small ( a couple of pounds) it might not be that big an issue. However, the regulations limiting them to 3 mph seem pretty reasonable. Since that’s pretty close to average walking speed.

Requiring a human operator nearby, however, completely defeats the purpose.


42 dan1111 January 3, 2018 at 6:29 pm

The limit to 9 in the entire city also seems hard to justify.


43 mikeInThe716 January 3, 2018 at 11:17 am

Would The Regulators be more favorably inclined towards a robot that cleaned SF’s unique and growing problem – human excrement in public places?

There are just some jobs that Americans (and almost everyone) won’t do.


44 msgkings January 3, 2018 at 12:22 pm

That problem is neither unique to SF nor growing.


45 Potato January 3, 2018 at 5:37 pm

It’s a huge problem in SF. Also in Berkeley to some extent.

There’s even an app for it now. See Ray, this isn’t a scam. This app helps you avoid stepping in human feces.


46 Ray Lopez January 3, 2018 at 12:37 pm

SF != Silicon Valley. When I lived in the Pacific Heights region, near the Golden Gate bridge, I quickly determined my neighbors were all actors and writers and such. The tech guys, if at all, were in the South Of Market district (near the ghetto of Tenderloin), mostly social media and programming types, not hardware types, and the real engineers (hardware) were in Palo Alto (Silicon Valley ‘proper’) about 40-80 minutes away by car, depending on how fast you drive and assuming little traffic. Mountain View, San Jose, and so on are also far from Frisco (yes, that’s the preferred term for hipsters of San Francisco, don’t even get me started you poseurs).


47 Brett January 3, 2018 at 1:07 pm

The sidewalk stuff I can understand. They’ve said before that the sidewalk is for pedestrians, and IIRC they also restrict any sort of bike taxi or bike delivery service on the sidewalks as well.

The robot security guard was a bad, inflammatory news article claiming that they were using the robot to drive off homeless encampments on the sidewalk (IIRC they were only using it for the parking garage). But it’s a touchy issue, especially with homelessness rampant in San Francisco.


48 Steve S January 3, 2018 at 2:19 pm

Covered with a tarp and barbecue sauce? Yeah…100% they were homeless


49 Dzhaughn January 3, 2018 at 4:24 pm

Those poor millenials, hungry and deprived of essentials from Yelp24. Such a shame they can’t walk.

Millenials should not enjoy such stories about themselves.


50 Bill January 3, 2018 at 5:18 pm

I think they should

Release the Robots

In a junkyard

Where they can play with friends of their own.

Stop Cruelty to Robots!

This message brought to you by the

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots.


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