Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Robots, Drones, and Law Enforcement

Rolling into Poolesville this morning, I began my deceleration as I rounded the bend on Route One Oh Seven.  I was coming up on the local Catholic church, but my reduction in speed had less to do with that than the two speed cameras that flank the primary entryway into the sleepy little burg.

"Our Lady of the Speed Trap," was what one wit had called it, and so I make a point of keeping 'er at the mandated Thirty Em Pii Aytch as I roll by the sanctuary of my Catholic brothers and sisters.

Only today, one of the two Gatso cameras was clearly down.  A patch of black plastic was taped crudely over the front of the one pointing out of town, flapping in the wind like a large wounded bat.  As I passed, the source of the damage became clear.  A scattered pattern of indentations lay across the front of the unit, which to my untrained eye indicated that the source of the malfunction was probably not software, unless 12 gauge "double aught" buckshot counts as software.

Guess some local didn't take too kindly to that recent ticket in the mail.  Another reminder that Poolesville really really isn't Bethesda, I guess.

As effective as it can be, there's just something odd about automated law enforcement.   Surveillance cameras just seem so very dystopian.  Here in Montgomery County, there's plenty of it, as over the last decade speed cameras have sprung up like grey steel mushrooms.

Across the Potomac river in my home state of Virginny, things have been rather less intrusive, as the conservative distrust of government has so far trumped the conservative tendency to love all things law-enforcement.

Only now, that may change.  It looks like we Virginians are going to skip right over the cameras, and go straight to Predator drones.  Gov. McDonnell and some leading law enforcement officials think it'll be the bees knees.  It's just another tool in the toolbox of law enforcement, or so the spiel goes.  It'll be cost-effective and productive, says the Governor...although it's not quite clear what that means.  Cost effective would mean fewer human beings working as police officers, I suppose.  Productive would mean "more tickets, fines, and penalties," I'd guess, which would make up for all those taxes Grover Norquist won't let us pay to support the livelihoods of well-trained community law-enforcement professionals.

Which would bring us into that place where we'd be interacting less and less with law enforcement professionals, and more and more with automated systems and farmed-out-to-lowest-bid-contractor bureaucracies.  Not to mention living in a country where robot drones circle the skies, constantly watching for our infractions with their unblinking eyes.


2 comments:

  1. The new order of automated surveillance has been with us for a while, particularly in large metropolitan areas (e.g., London). I think drones are a long way off in this domain, given operating costs. Fixed cameras are much more practical. In war, there is some growing concern about our extensive use of drones and some slightly hysterical conflation of drones with robots. I think we're a long way from taking the man out of the loop, though, and so it's a case of coming to terms with new technology. I'm open-minded, myself.

    Ralph Hitchens

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  2. That you are, Ralph.

    Drones are not, of course, robots...although the lines grow more blurry as AI becomes more sophisticated. There are, as I see it, several challenges with drone use domestically. First, law enforcement isn't war. The capacity to stand off and strike with impunity is useful in combat, but actively counterproductive in maintaining healthy ties between a community and law enforcement. Second, pursuit of efficiency is deeply flawed in this instance. This is in large part because, as you note, drones are actually not particularly efficient. But the illusion of efficiency may be enough to drive some into taking the money out of cops-on-the-beat and putting it into the pockets of drone manufacturers.

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