Ford’s Robot Police Car Is No RoboCop

By Jeremy Hsu | February 12, 2018 4:10 pm
A view from a cyborg police officer in the 2014 film "RoboCop." Credit: Sony Pictures

A view from a cyborg police officer in the 2014 film “RoboCop.” Credit: Sony Pictures

Before the RoboCop future arrives, a robot police car that pulls over speeding vehicles and issues tickets or warnings on its own could someday help ease a shortage of human officers at police departments across the United States. But the vision of a self-driving police vehicle described in a Ford patent also raises many questions about whether such technology is the right tool for law enforcement.

The basic Ford patent description makes clear that this self-driving police car cannot do the job of a flesh-and-blood police officer. Instead, it focuses on the idea that “routine police tasks, such as issuing tickets for speeding or failure to stop at a stop sign, can be automated.” It goes on to describe the self-driving police car’s capabilities as follows: detecting traffic law violations by another vehicle, tracking and chasing the perpetrator vehicle until the latter pulls over, automatically checking the vehicle license plate or relevant driver’s license with a central database, and deciding whether to issue a ticket or warning based on the violation.

This idea sounds OK in theory: automating some of the dull and more routine tasks to free up human police officers for more urgent duties. That could help address growing shortfalls of police officers at law enforcement agenices in both rural communities and big cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore and Dallas; Houston’s police department in particular has reportedly been short of as many as 2,000 officers needed to serve the country’s fourth largest city. Yet in many ways, the patent description of the robot police car makes it sound like a solution in search of a problem.

Go Go Traffic Law Enforcer

Ford’s patent describes a robot police car that is basically a mobile version of an automated red light camera or speed camera, rather than a RoboCop intended to chase down uncooperative suspects. The robot police car may still serve some broader law enforcement purpose as a deterrent—especially for human drivers who may tend to be more cautious in sight of a police vehicle—but it does not possess anything like the full capabilities of a human police officer.

Ford’s vision for an autonomous police vehicle leans heavily on the idea that many future cars—whether manually driven or fully driverless—will have the technology to wirelessly communicate with the robot police car. The approved patent specifically covers the concept of wirelessly receiving driver’s license information from another vehicle. It also covers the concept of wirelessly transmitting messages regarding the robot police car’s decision to another vehicle: a traffic ticket with a fine, a warning without a fine, or a message saying the vehicle is free to leave the scene.

The Ford patent does allow for the possibility of the robot police car scanning a driver’s license that a human driver holds out the window of the vehicle. But otherwise the robot police car in question seems best designed for pulling over and ticketing very cooperative vehicles or drivers, given that there is no mention of any contingency actions in case the suspect vehicle takes off and refuses to stop.

No Such Thing as Free Policing

One crucial question is whether local and state law enforcement agencies would actually consider this autonomous police vehicle a worthwhile investment in comparison with other technologies. The Ford robot police car or similar autonomous police vehicles would be much less attractive if their cost was significantly higher than those of potentially cheaper alternatives, especially given how local and state law enforcement agencies have already been struggling to recruit and retain human police officers due to budget issues.

For example, cities and police departments have already been using automated enforcement technologies such as red light and speed cameras to detect traffic violations, sometimes as part of an automated system that can also mail tickets to homes of the perpetrators in question. Installing automated red light camera systems can cost between $67,000 and $80,000 per intersection. Separately, speed cameras installed on cars operated by the New York City Department of Transportation cost approximately $90,000 to $115,000, which doesn’t include the vehicle costs.

By comparison, the first generation of fully autonomous self-driving cars could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per robot car. That’s without even accounting for the additional cost of the robot police car’s automated traffic enforcement system as envisioned by Ford, which would likely be at least as expensive as the fixed-installation red light cameras and speed cameras already in use today. So it’s probably a reasonable assumption that Ford’s robot police car would be more expensive than any standalone versions of automated camera systems.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads

It’s still possible that the robot police car’s mobility would make it valuable as a flexible tool for law enforcement. Having a squad of autonomous police vehicles could theoretically be more cost-effective than, say, installing enforcement traffic light cameras at every intersection or main stretch of highway—especially if patterns of traffic violations continue to change among different geographical locations over time.

But if a major U.S. city really wants a mobile technology that can automatically spot and ticket vehicles violating traffic laws, a robot police car may ultimately pale in comparison with flying drones. U.S. law enforcement agencies already operate surveillance aircraft and helicopters that can capture clear images of vehicle license plates–or even human faces–from up to a thousand feet away. Tomorrow’s police drones could likely use machine learning AI to automatically spot many more traffic law violators from the air than a robot police car stuck on the ground.

A robot police car may ultimately cost less than a long-endurance surveillance drone carrying the same equipment. But the utility of a drone or even a crewed surveillance aircraft could make the flying option more cost-effective than a robot police car in the long run.

Maybe Not the RoboCop We Need

Last but not least, the patent specifically mentions the capability to determine whether a vehicle is driverless or being operated by a human driver. That raises two related questions: Should we expect many autonomous vehicles in the future to actually break traffic laws by speeding or running red lights? And if not, what need is there for a robot police car that works best in pulling over cooperative smart vehicles?

One of the big selling points for the supposed future of self-driving and fully driverless vehicles is that they would presumably reduce the number of driving accidents and traffic violations by gradually removing human drivers from the equation. Waymo and other companies developing driverless cars have repeatedly emphasized the idea that robot cars will drive safely and presumably in a law-abiding manner. At their dreamiest, self-driving car advocates talk about a future filled with autonomous vehicles that communicate with one another and a city’s central traffic system in order to transform traffic gridlock into a beautifully choreographed dance of commuting efficiency.

If that future system works as promised, a robot police car would seem fairly redundant in terms of policing autonomous vehicles. It’s far more likely that driverless vehicles which might occasionally commit a traffic violation through malfunction could probably police themselves by self-reporting any problems to law enforcement and their human engineers overseeing the overall system.

A robot police car might prove far more useful helping human police officers lay down the law to human drivers and people in general. But policing potentially uncooperative people rather than cooperative smart vehicles also presents a far greater challenge involving much more complex situations. It would undoubtedly raise the risks of something going terribly wrong, given the hypothetical scenarios of a robot police car trying to take out a suspect vehicle during a high-speed pursuit or somehow apprehending suspects fleeing on foot.

Ford’s idea could still find some use if robot police car capabilities evolve beyond those described in the patent. But a robot police car focused on policing law-abiding autonomous vehicles is unlikely to be the solution that cash-strapped police departments need right now, if ever.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Why Star Wars Space Nazis Shun Killer Robots

By Jeremy Hsu | January 19, 2018 2:50 pm
Captain Phasma stands with several of her First Order stormtroopers in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Credit: Disney

Captain Phasma stands with several of her First Order stormtroopers in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

Star Wars films tend to dwell upon space fantasy adventures that mix starships with space wizards wielding laser swords in a galaxy far, far away. Despite that focus, a number of Star Wars films also happen to feature another staple of science fiction: killer robots.

Fictional killer robots often represent either the agents of greater villains or the primary existential threat to humanity in many science fiction films. Iconic Star Wars villains such as Darth Vader and Kylo Ren would seem to naturally go glove-in-hand with the idea of commanding killer robot armies to do their bidding. But the Star Wars films generally go in a different direction by featuring villains who mostly disdain the use of killer robots—even if the bad guys may secretly like the idea of mindless automatons doing their bidding.

Turn back now if you want to avoid spoilers on any of the Star Wars films other than “The Last Jedi.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

This Tycoon’s Secret Radar Lab Helped Win WWII

By Jeremy Hsu | January 15, 2018 1:48 pm
Alfred Lee Loomis in his Tower House lab, Tuxedo Park, NY. Credit: Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # SIA2008-5428

Alfred Lee Loomis in his Tower House lab, Tuxedo Park, NY. Credit: Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, image # SIA2008-5428

Scientists and engineers who worked for MIT’s Radiation Laboratory had a saying about World War II: The atomic bomb may have ended the war, but radar won it. A new PBS documentary makes the case for that bold statement by telling the story of Alfred Lee Loomis, a founder of the Radiation Lab and a millionaire Wall Street tycoon who directed the U.S. government’s wartime effort to develop radar technologies into effective weapons. But even before the war, Loomis had built up his scientific credentials by inviting the best U.S. and foreign scientists to visit his private science laboratory in a renovated mansion that famed physicist Albert Einstein dubbed a “palace of science.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

‘The Last Jedi’ Revealed the Dark Side of BB-8

By Jeremy Hsu | January 3, 2018 2:37 pm
The clever and adorable repair droid BB-8 is a popular face of the new Star Wars film trilogy by Disney. Credit: Disney

The clever and adorable repair droid BB-8 is a popular face of the new Star Wars film trilogy by Disney. Credit: Disney

Robots can provide comic relief and cuteness overload for longtime fans of the Star Wars films that take place in a galaxy far, far away. The latest example in Disney’s Star Wars films is the adorable BB-8 droid that has a dome head riding atop a spherical body and mostly communicates through beeps and electronic warbles. But something dark and ominous may be lurking beneath the bubbly droid’s exterior.

Turn back now to avoid spoilers on “The Last Jedi” or any of the Star Wars films.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

‘Predator’ Vision Drones Get AI to Spot Poachers

By Jeremy Hsu | December 29, 2017 10:12 pm
The thermal infrared camera imagery taken by a drone operated by the Air Shepherd conservation group during a field demonstration. Credit: Air Shepherd

The thermal infrared camera imagery taken by a drone operated by the Air Shepherd conservation group during a field demonstration. Credit: Air Shepherd

Poachers illegally hunting elephants and rhinoceroses under the supposed cover of darkness may soon find themselves being tracked by “Predator” vision drones armed with artificial intelligence. The new AI system that enables surveillance drones to automatically detect both humans and animals could help conservation experts and rangers protect endangered wildlife starting in 2018. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Forget Bans: UN Stuck on Defining Killer Robots

By Jeremy Hsu | December 18, 2017 10:28 pm
An unmanned military robot rolls out of a U.S. Marine amphibious vehicle during the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2017 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. Credit: Lance Cpl. Jamie Arzola

An unmanned military robot rolls out of a U.S. Marine amphibious vehicle during the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2017 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. Credit: Lance Cpl. Jamie Arzola

A United Nations meeting on lethal autonomous weapons ended in disappointment for advocates hoping that the world would make progress on regulating or banning “killer robot” technologies. The UN group of governmental experts barely even scratched the surface of defining what counts as a lethal autonomous weapon. But instead of trying to create a catch-all killer robots definition, they might have better luck next time focusing on the role of humans in controlling such autonomous weapons. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Virtual Reality Can Help Convict Nazi War Criminals

By Jeremy Hsu | December 14, 2017 12:04 am
A scene from the short documentary film "Nazi VR" that tells of how a virtual recreation of Auschwitz helped convict a Nazi war criminal. Credit: MEL Films

A scene from the short documentary film “Nazi VR” that tells of how a virtual recreation of Auschwitz helped convict a Nazi war criminal. Credit: MEL Films

During World War II, Reinhold Hanning served as a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp where more than 1.1 million people were killed by Nazi Germany. More than 70 years later, a virtual recreation of Auschwitz helped German prosecutors convict Hanning of being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people. Now a new documentary film explores how the virtual model of Auschwitz can be viewed through virtual reality headsets in future court cases involving the last surviving Nazi war criminals. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Star Wars Droids Top Sci-Fi Robots Survey

By Jeremy Hsu | December 11, 2017 9:11 pm
The Star Wars droids C-3PO (left) and R2-D2 (right) were the most popular science fiction robots in a recent survey by Conversica. Credit: Disney | Lucasfilm

The Star Wars droids C-3PO (left) and R2-D2 (right) were the most popular science fiction robots in a recent survey by Conversica. Credit: Disney | Lucasfilm

Disney seems to have a lock on many of the more popular science fiction robots between owning Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise and the beloved animation studio Pixar. A recent survey of Americans found that the Star Wars robot duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO topped the choices of people’s favorite sci-fi robots driven by artificial intelligence, followed closely by Pixar’s trash-compacting robot WALL-E. Commander Data, a pasty-looking android with a much more humanlike appearance from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” came in last. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

How Tanks Went from War Curio to Homefront Hero

By Jeremy Hsu | November 30, 2017 11:44 pm
http://digital.nls.uk/first-world-war-official-photographs/archive/74549152

British tanks on training manoeuvres, in France, during World War I. This photograph of an advancing tank dwarfing British troops, gives an idea of the scale of tanks, and the power they brought to the front line in the last years of the war. The earliest models of tank were slow and excessively heavy, and struggled on wet ground, but later models were much more effective. Credit: National Library of Scotland | Tom Aitken

When the first tanks appeared on the battlefields of World War I, journalists described them as “grotesque creatures” and made comparisons to prehistoric animals such as dinosaurs. Even German prisoners of war supposedly laughed when recalling their first glimpse of the mechanical beasts. Later versions of British heavy tanks received an unflattering paint color known as “dog turd brown.” But 100 years ago, the first mass attack by hundreds of British tanks at the Battle of Cambrai signaled a huge change in modern warfare and even helped win civilian hearts and minds back home. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

The Big Caveat on AI and Future Work

By Jeremy Hsu | November 30, 2017 7:06 pm
Amazon robots and human workers together in a warehouse. Credit: Amazon Robotics

Amazon robots and human workers together in a warehouse. Credit: Amazon Robotics

Artificial intelligence will likely both giveth and taketh away jobs for humans. A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that automation could displace between 400 million and 800 million people worldwide by 2030, even as the report also suggests the benefits of automation could help create enough new jobs for displaced workers. But beyond the numbers, the report offers more useful lessons regardless of whether future work ultimately looks sunny or bleak. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.
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