Almost 30 years after “RoboCop” was released to theaters its modern incarnation has finally arrived.
Huntington Park, a small city near Los Angeles in California, recently debuted its “HP RoboCop” (yes, they actually called it that) as a “deterrent to crime and disruptive activity.” Though seemingly innocuous, wrongdoers beware - while it is unclear the full array of functions the machine has it seems primarily geared towards having a 360-degree video mobile monitoring ability.
While it seems the “RoboCop” is more a cute public relations effort than a truly transformational force or piece of equipment on its own, it is worth noting how technology has rapidly moved forward in the law enforcement area in recent years.
In the last decade many debates centered around the use of CCTV cameras, DNA, and fingerprints. We have seen drones, facial recognition, and other high-tech equipment become not just experimental but rather the norm to support our law enforcement agencies’ job in protecting our communities and nation as well as tools for business and commerce.
These technologies have become powerful and effective tools to deter crimes, enforce laws, and bring criminals to justice. It is hard to imagine anything being untraceable in our modern day, whether it be in the physical or digital world – yes, even with cryptocurrencies.
We should feel well and secure that law enforcement now has unparalleled tools in its arsenal to combat criminal activity of all sorts and ensure the strength and certainty of prosecutions through the enormous array of evidence it can collect. Gone are the days of a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective following bread crumbs and doing stake outs – nowadays it’s probably a drone.
As these technologies gain greater adoption however we also should be well aware of how to ensure our freedoms and rights, particularly that to privacy, are protected too. The idea of 24/7 surveillance of our communities is, on the one hand, comforting in knowing its deterrence and evidence effect. On the other hand it also is a bit unsettling for those who embrace the fundamentally American instinct to be left to themselves. It’s also private companies now who do the same, perhaps even more so, resulting in increasing public concerns over privacy.
In 2002 the movie “Minority Report” envisioned a world in which law enforcement is able to predict crimes before they happen, albeit in the movie through the use of psychics rather than technology, and exploring some of the potentially negative ramifications of that. Yet in our modern day that technology already exists in the public square albeit in a different form – it’s called data science, as technology companies use vast amounts of information harvesting to predict what you want to buy, what you like to do, what you like to watch, and where you like to travel.
George Orwell’s “1984” was created from a much more rudimentary world where it was difficult to imagine the technology we have today. Yet in some parts of the world his dystopia is playing out, such as in the People’s Republic of China where an authoritarian regime has taken its vast array of technology to bring much of its population in line. A “social credit system” sounds intriguing and almost innocent until you realize the horrifying extraction of individuality it relies upon.
Technology is a powerful tool for many purposes, whether it be navigating roads, staying in touch with friends, or law enforcement. However we must always remain vigilant about the deal we strike in exchange for it, particularly with our own personal freedom, information, and privacy.
As data breaches from financial and technology companies continue to mount, and every day we see hacks and malfunctions still happen, it is worth remembering that the technology that supports us can also at times turn on us and our purposes (though not in the way Elon Musk imagines it, or at least perhaps not yet).
RoboCop may be cute and better police surveillance of public areas, in combination with other technologies, may be both a strong deterrent to crime and greatly assist in catching criminals and giving restitution to victims.
Yet each year as technologies continue to roar forward we always should remember that these new advances are not foolproof, that it is in the hands of humans behind the controller and keyboard, and what we may be giving up in the process.
In the meantime, I for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
Erich Reimer is a Captain in the United States Army. He previously served as a government affairs lawyer and media commentator. Views expressed are his own and not those of the Department of Defense.