If you don’t see the problems inherent in the Dallas Police Force’s recent use of a robotic device to blow up a suspect, we’re not going to accuse you of being stupid. We’re just going to suggest you do a little more reading. And maybe some movie watching. The incident in Dallas has certainly brought the issue of robotics in police work into sharp focus, but movies have been exploring this concept for years. Here are just a few that might be worth watching to help you ponder the possible effects of technology on policing.
If you think Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws are going to be of any use, forget it. Here’s what happens in I, Robot, when the robots themselves put the laws to work. Deciding we’re a danger to ourselves, battalions of them round us up at curfew to confine us to our homes:
And here’s what happens to cops when the robots make this decision. Finally confirming your suspicion that – from a logical/philosophical point of view – police are in fact incapable of “protecting and serving”. They’re just as human as the citizens they police.
There’s a surprising lack of police bots in Minority Report, considering all the other near-future tech in the film, but the ones we do see are about as creepy as we can expect robotic police tools to get. They’re hordes of nanobots that can slip through the tiniest of crevices, and apparently have tasers built in.
It’s not entirely clear in the movie Elysium how autonomous the various robots are. The patrol bots at the beginning use profanity, so one might reasonably assume they’re the bipedal version of today’s human controlled UAV’s. But whether these droids are controlled by humans in real time or not is irrelevant, they highlight a couple of important problems with robots and police. If controlled like drones, they profoundly depersonalize interactions with humans. Early in the film, the police bots break bones during a routine “stop and frisk”. Shortly after, the automated “parole robot” removes human interaction completely with almost comical results. Perhaps most importantly though, in terms of how tech like this might actually be used, the most autonomous of these droids are only seen as evil by poor people. They’re doing exactly what the rich people want them to do.
When the police robot asks Matt Damon “What’s in the bag?”, he replies, smirking, “Oh, hair products, mostly”. Damon then gets his arm broken with a police baton as he’s pummeled to the ground. Apparently bad jokes are against the law.
Later, at the parole office, the robotic parole officer peppers the conversation with “STOP TALKING” and “Elevation in heart rate detected. Would you like a pill?
These police robots are making sure these poor people don’t get themselves some health care. Silly poor people, don’t they know health care is for rich people?
These faceless, leather-clad robot cops actually are pretty decent cops in most regards, but only because they’re operating in a society in which the average citizen’s individual spirit is already broken, and kept sedated with drugs and enforced conformity of appearance and behavior. The primary purpose of the robotic cops in THX 1138 seems to be to prevent you from having sex with Robert Duvall. Who knows, maybe that’s actually a GOOD thing.
This is how they spend much of their time when they’re off duty:
The inclusion of the Robocop movies here seemed too obvious to bother with, but it’s probably obligatory. As bad as the films are collectively, they were probably the first to explore some of the more obvious things, like ultimate power in corrupt hands, the possibilities for malfunctions….
…and the most fundamental problem facing robotics in police work, the human-machine interface and how it can best be implemented: