Looking back, one of the strangest experiences of my childhood was being taken by my dad to see Robocop in the theater on opening night. At the time I thought this was awesome; as an adult I wonder why anyone in their right mind would take a 9 year old child to see that movie. This is a movie that had to be re-cut several times and have several scenes of humor* added to get down to an R rating from NC-17. The movie includes, off the top of my head, a rape scene, a guy snorting coke off a prostitute's boobs, a man who explodes when hit by a speeding van, and about 700 grisly, dismembering deaths by firearm. When it comes to entertainment (and parenting, I suppose) my dad is just kind of a big kid, so I doubt he thought anything of it beyond "This is awesome!"

In hindsight, though, I'm glad I saw it when it came out. Being impressionable and imaginative, I couldn't stop wondering if the future was really going to be like that. For a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi movie, it turned out to predict a remarkably accurate vision of the future. That it was set in Detroit now looks like a stroke of brilliance, and that city's troubles have led to a revival of interest in the film (not to mention the obligatory, shitty remake). Despite being a patently silly film, it was also prescient in some ways.The basic functions of local government along with huge portions of its infrastructure are being sold off to private corporations. Violence and crime are rampant in some of the more sordid Rust Belt has-been cities. It wasn't a completely accurate vision, though. We don't have robot-police patrolling the cities.

So here's the thing, and bear with me: Should we? Is this an idea whose time has come?


Recent events have cast in high relief the serious problems with law enforcement in this country. Since our social betters are constantly trying to replace the rest of us with technology – robots replacing factory workers, voice recognition software replacing the secretary, video screens replacing teachers – why not consider automating the police? Sure, they would make tons of mistakes, poorly investigate a lot of crimes, and kill innocent civilians more than a few times. It would hardly take any getting used to at all, in other words.

You think this is half-assed satire or sarcasm. But think about it: who would do a better job of taking a statement from a possible rape victim, a machine following a programmed script or a 55 year old guy who knows that all Bitches secretly Want It? And if we're going to live with cops using wildly excessive force, we should at least have "cops" who dole it out equally to all of us rather than treating certain groups (rich people, white people, rich white people) with kid gloves while brutalizing others.

This is a workable idea. It is so not because the technology of robotics and artificial intelligence are so advanced that we are close to creating perfect human analogues. It is workable because the police are so completely out of control right now that I can scarcely imagine an alternative that could be less effective at Serving and Protecting the public or following the law in their efforts to enforce it.

(*True story: Among the scenes added were the fake product commercials, the "I'd Buy That for a Dollar!" guy, and the person yelling "Someone call a paramedic!" after ED-209 malfunctions and shoots that guy about 100 times. The explicit purpose of these additions was to lighten the tone of the film and take the edge off of the grisly violence long enough to get it down to an R rating.)

31 thoughts on “ED-209”

  • Like ED-209, they would most likely malfunction from time to time and fill someone with lead for no good reason. But as you suggest, they would do this without racial prejudice, and probably due to statistics this would mean a lot more white people getting shot. Suddenly white people would start questioning the quality of the police force and complaining about it. It would be a teaching moment.

  • I first saw it on cable. Don't know why I thought it was going to be PG or PG-13. So it did catch me out.

    I think part of the point of the film was that in the midst of this dehumanised, dystopian future a spark of humanity still glowed. That somewhere beneath it all, cops are still humans and still cared for people.

    Of course with a robotic police force, they could "all become infected with a virus"—yeah, yeah, a virus, that's the ticket—and go on a killing spree of all 'undesirable' persons.
    "We at Omni Corp are all very sorry for this terrible mishap. We have addressed the security flaw, and assure you it will NAEVER happen again (until the release of COPOS 3.0 then who knows)."

  • I'm with Graham and Xynzee. the same mysogenic, xenophobic, paranoid cops are the ones who will write the requirement documents, and the SW contractors will be employing some kids whose dad was a cop or a Marines Major but couldn't stomach the "family trade", because security clearance, and the oversight committee will be populated by the same Koch-owned, NRA-funded "elected officials". If anything, they will be more effective at targeting the same young black males and disadvantaged kids.

    No thank you.

  • I'm with you Ed, but this is the really real world, so it won't be any kind of giant stop-motion robot monstrosity. It'll be drone cops…the minute someone manages to successfully mount a taser and a 9mm onto an Air Hogs quadcopter, your local force will consist entirely of maladjusted 18 year old joystick jockies trained extensively on Call of Duty.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    How about first we try to stop our military from handing down it's used toys to the tot's on police forces around the country?

    And then remind police departments that their first job is to keep the peace – and that the members are "Peace Officers," and not occupying military forces in a foreign town/city like Fallujah.

    Oh, and it also would help if the NRA stopped using fear, hatred, bigotry, and paranoia of the "Others," to sell more guns.
    And while the NRA is an equal opportunity seller of guns, they market to the white people by using fear, hatred, and bigotry of minorities.

    But, our cowardly, compliant, and complicit politicians are too afraid of the NRA's clout to try to regulate it – that ship sailed a long, long, time ago.
    ARM THE ROOMBA'S!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • That film is a masterpiece. Funny that Detroit ended up worse than Robocop predicted but the theme of gentrification of Detroit is in there too. And union busting. Also there are DVDs in that movie which is very prescient. Verhoeven predicted YouTube in Starship Troopers which is an underrated classic.

  • One of my cousins took my brother and I to see Rocky Horror when it first came out – we were 12 and 10. I'm fairly sure my mum had no idea what this movie was when she it was okay to take us. I'm also fairly sure my cousin did…

  • "What, you think skin colour could not be programmed into BotCop? What century you livin' in, boy?"

    Off on a bit of tangent but my softball team won our fall league this year. We took a picture of the team and it was posted on the book o' faces. Or maybe I should call it book of white faces. The facial recognition software on the sight didn't even know there was a person standing there.

  • "I'd buy that for a dollar" came from Fred Pohl's The Marching Morons, from which Idiocracy was also partially taken. I'd say the difference between a roboforce and a people cops is six of one/ half dozen of another. An interesting paper suggests computers are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong as a form of the Halting Problem, in which case, computers can't do it/. Not the other had, a cop shitting himself in fear is at least as dangerous as an immoral machine.

    On the other hand, generalized inference is modeled quite well using a statistical technique called renormalization, so there is a possibility computers are as flexible as people cops in judgement.

    Finally, hey, bill, who says cops can't be hacked? We collective tribal AIs have been successfully hacked for ten thousand years…

  • Along the same lines, I kind of shudder when I read about cars that drive themselves. After all, what could go wrong? But then I go out driving and look at all the "real people" drivers and realize that self-driving cars would be an improvement.

    I was driving home from the store the other day. I stopped at one stoplight. The guy behind me had a cell phone up to his ear in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand. The guy next to me had a cell phone up to his ear and was writing something down. The guy behind him had a cell phone up to his ear and appeared to be arguing with someone. At the next light, all three were doing the same thing. At the second light, three cars turned in front of us. All of the drivers were on their cell phone, including the cop — who was texting.

  • "An interesting paper suggests computers are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong as a form of the Halting Problem, in which case, computers can't do it."

    I thought the Halting problem was just that you couldn't program a general algorithm that would be able to handle all possible permutations of input. After all, debuggers have been able to deal with subsets of "halting problems" for decades.

    While it's true that you probably couldn't program in a set of rules that would result in an ethical or moral output from the computer in each and every situation, I doesn't seem like humans are all that much better at it, whether they employ a philosophical maxim or their own fuzzy logic…

  • P.S.: "The Marching Morons" was written by C.M. Kornbluth, not Fred Pohl. (Pohl did work with Kornbluth on some of his stories and novels.)

  • Right off the top, there is no way the powers that be will allow robocop to dole it out equally, without fear or favor as the saying goes. The job requirements call for treating various humans with differing levels of deference. Human cops, firefighters, and the general public all have to be treated differently. I foresee this system mutating quickly into some kind of protection racket. All the way from police association sticker in the window level to ignoring you while standing over the body with a smoking gun.

  • Wotan Nichols says:

    There was also a short story by Larry Niven in which the peace was maintained by what amounted to surveillance drones. When a hacker managed to ground all the drones (which were called 'Cop's Eyes' in the story), Niven sketched out a 'Lord of the Flies' scenario of escalating violence & inhumanity, until the power came back on & the authorities could start administering knockout gas to the miscreants. It is sobering to reflect that Niven was the progressive half of Niven-Pournelle.

  • Thanks for the Marching Moron reference, Whatver. As a fan of Idiocracy I'll be following that up.

    For an amusing take on the computer ethics problem read Michael Frayn's The Tin Men. The boat scene is still one of the funniest things I've ever read.

  • Bill – most of our police forces are already hackable and always have been. In olden days this was called "bribery".

  • A privatization/crony capitalism/boardroom overrides engineering department reductio ad absurdum propaganda movie from 1987 was a "silly movie?"

    What was your occupation again?

    I thought it was another Doc McCoy vs Spock spat.

  • Piling on the "hacking/bribery" theme: How long before departments start handing out RFID bracelets that render them invisible to PoliceBots? Only for the rich and influential, of course.

  • As has been alluded to, it would probably wind up as a "fee for service" atrocity just like corporate medicine.

    A good "South Park" episode…if not already done.

  • I think I first saw Robocop a few years or so ago. Kurtwood Smith is a hell of an actor. I can't imagine taking anyone younger than like 15 to see it.

    If only all rapists got shot in the dick by Robocop, the world would be a better place.

  • Robocop, a movie depicting a dystopic Detroit, was filmed in Dallas. At least, in the remake, they used the actual Detroit, Detroit.

    This burns my ass about that flick to this day.

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