Human police leave too much to chance

The shootings in the US last week were utterly abhorrent. The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were sad symptoms of a centuries-old disease in the United States. The killing of five policemen (and one civilian) in Dallas – likely intended as revenge of sorts – was similarly tragic.

I’m not writing to you to unpick the politics of these killings. Plenty of people will do that much better than I could.

Instead, I want to highlight an important detail of the Dallas shootout that might have passed you by.

The Dallas shootout wasn’t ended by a sniper’s bullet, or by suicide. It was ended by a bomb disposal robot armed with an explosive device.

“We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot” said Dallas police chief David O. Brown, “and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was… other options would have exposed our officers to great danger.”

“The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb.”

The irony of a bomb disposal robot using a bomb to kill someone is pretty clear. But this is not the first time a robot has been used to take a life. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used to kill thousands of people across the world – but a robot has never killed a human being on US soil before.

This incident raises some uneasy questions. Why shouldn’t robots be put to work as law enforcers on US streets? The US military already employs robots to perform tasks deemed too dangerous for humans. If civilian-police conflict escalates any further in the US, a strong case could be made for doing the same in American cities. Robots are expendable in a way police officers are not.

That might save civilian lives. But what about victims of police violence? 607 people have been killed by American police so far this year at the time of writing; the number will almost certainly be higher by the time you read this.

The last 60+ years have shown that American police aren’t much good at saving lives, due in part to severe, inbuilt racism. Robots – assuming they were programmed by slightly more rational people – might go some way to solving that problem, too.

Proposals to automate policing would likely cause uproar – but would it be worse than the status quo? I don’t think that the public – if given a straight choice – would object to a police force hardwired to be impartial.

Camden, NJ is a vision of the future

Robo-policing is probably some way off, but law enforcement in America’s most violent town is already leaning heavily on technology to combat crime.

Camden, New Jersey, a few kilometres across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, had twelve times the national murder rate in 2013. Violent and drug-related crime was rife, with officers afraid to visit the town’s worst areas.

New Jersey Police spent $4.5m installing a military-grade surveillance system consisting of cameras, microphones and listening posts. As well as acting as a strong deterrent, the system made it easier to catch those still committing crimes. Camden now has fewer officers on frontline duty, with much of the town’s policing done from a central intelligence hub. Technology has made the town safer, both for civilian residents and police.

The Camden model could turn bystanders into surveillance teams

When a live crisis – specifically one that involves hostages, or active attackers – unfolds on TV, bystanders are urged not to discuss operational details. While attackers are on the loose, talking about the location of police teams can be incredibly dangerous.

You may remember that during the Mumbai attacks in 2008, police threatened to neutralise a man (innocently) describing police movements live on television. Civilians are meant to stay quiet, and let the police do their job.

But policing, like more or less everything else, can benefit from crowdsourced data. Jon Fisher, CEO of San Francisco-based CrowdOptic, has developed a system that would enable those privy to a crisis situation to help police forces respond to attacks. Bystanders would stream or record videos of attackers on their phones; that would give emergency services the location and direction you are facing. In combination, several of these videos would allow the police to triangulate the position of the ne’er-do-wells.

The platform, known as the CrowdOptic Interactive Streaming platform, is already live in several places, though not in a crime-fighting capacity. It’s currently available on Google Glass and Sony SmartEyeglass, but Android and iOS apps are also planned.

“We’re talking about phones now”, said Fisher, “but think about all other devices, such as drones, that will be delivering these feeds to CNN and possibly local police.”

Police forces that use this or similar technology will be able to follow suspects from many more perspectives. But those perspectives will still only be as good as the people they inform. Technology is neutral – the people it empowers still have to do their jobs properly.

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Category: Robotics

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