Robocops: are the police robots coming?

Blog post

Robocops: are the police robots coming?

In Paul Verhoeven’s dystopian 1987 film Robocop a Detroit police officer is gunned down and transformed by an evil corporation into a prototype law enforcement cyborg. Fast forward to 2016 and we find that police robots are being deployed on the streets in places as far afield as China and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Less visibly, automated software is playing a major role in areas like digital forensics and economic crime prevention.

So, are the police robots coming?

In their pioneering 2013 study of the US labour market Carl Benedict Frey and Michael Osborne predicted that as many as 47% of jobs in America are at risk from computerisation over the next ten to twenty years. A contrasting study has subsequently estimated that the figure for OECD countries is more like 9%. What everyone agrees is that very many of the tasks currently performed by human beings will in the coming years be performed by robots and algorithms.

Driving this trend is the exponential increase in the capabilities of computerised machines. In the twentieth century computer technology was a threat to routine manual workers, whose roles could easily be broken down into discrete tasks and coded. Now the increased power of computerised devices means that non-routine work can be broken down into tasks, enabling them to be coded and acted upon autonomously.

Non-routine cognitive labour is under threat because of the rise of big data, which means that patterns can be detected by algorithms across huge data sets, enabling machines to think in ways that surpass human capabilities. Non routine manual labour is at risk because of advances in robotics. Enhanced sensors and manipulators mean that robots can now manage tasks such as driving autonomously in busy traffic that were previously considered the preserve of human workers.

In their book of The Future of the Professions, Daniel Susskind and Richard Susskind predict that the professions such as the law, medicine and architecture are now at risk. These professions have for decades acted as gate keepers, maintaining, interpreting and applying practical expertise to many of the most complex problems we face. Susskind and Susskind argue that in a technology based internet society there are new, cheaper and more transparent solutions to the problem of limited understanding than paying to consult a human expert.

The irony for the police service is that just as it has decided to pursue an agenda of ‘professionalisation’ the whole notion of the professional expert is under assault from powerful technology.

So, to what degree is policing likely to be subject to automation? We should note that some areas of policing activity are already being automated. For instance, algorithms are already used as part of digital forensic investigations to match coders with their creations. In another example, algorithms are used by banks to spot unusual financial transactions, which may be indicative of fraud or money laundering.

It seems entirely plausible that in the near future components of criminal investigation, traffic enforcement, surveillance and crime analysis will be mainly carried out by automated systems.

However, police officers will be relieved to know that most of what we currently think of as policing will continue to require human labour. This includes areas such as community engagement, victim liaison, the use of police powers to stop or arrest, and most of the order maintenance function.

The reason for this is that these tasks require at least one of the following things: 1) deep and broad human perception that is capable of making sense of highly unstructured data, 2) an ability to respond to sudden events in a physically agile way, 3) an ability to interpret human heuristics and to relate and communicate on an emotional level with other people, and 4) the capacity to make moral judgments.

It is because law enforcement intrinsically involves making moral judgements about the appropriate use of police powers that so much of it is unsuited to automation. This is not just because practically it seems unlikely we would ever be able to programme a robot officer to distinguish between right and wrong. It is also because we want police officers to take responsibility for the moral judgments they make. We want another human being to have reflected upon and agonised over decisions that matter and have moral weight.

The technological revolution will transform the way the police work. Before that happens we need to openly debate the implications. Even if robotics and algorithms can make policing more effective and efficient, the public will still need to be convinced that their application in any particular instance would be right. Police decision makers would do well to start thinking now about some of the ethical as well as technical issues raised by the technological revolution we are living through.

This is an abridged version of a published article. The full version can be found in Police Professional.

The implications of technological change for the police workforce and the ethical issues raised will be discussed at the Police Foundation’s Annual Conference on 1st December. Tickets can be booked via our website.