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Opposite Day: Cops Should Be Robots

[Opposite Day caveat: This post started out as a genuine attempt to play with an idea. I was not at all sure I wasn’t willing to give some fairly serious consideration to actually adopting it as a position to advocate. As I wrote it, I realized that Opposite Day was coming up, and I thought it might fit into that scene pretty well, since I also had some strong doubts. Now I think I made the right decision about that. I.e., now I don’t think I think this is such great idea anymore. But I’m interested in what others think about it.]

Perhaps we should make it a priority to develop robots that could perform many of the roles of beat-walking and other street-level police officers, and seek to largely replace human street police with them as soon as we can.

The two outstanding problems relating to excessive police violence, it seems to me1, are, first, that police use as much force as they feel is necessary to maintain peace and order and enforce the laws while exposing themselves to no more than some certain amount of physical risk to themselves. Meaning, they use more force than is necessary to maintain peace and order and enforce the laws out of fear for their own well-being. We, the public, though, would prefer that they use only strictly as much force as is really necessary to maintain peace and order and enforce the laws, and no more.

Second, police, like nearly all humans, carry around with them unconscious and reflexive biases in how they think of people they encounter with various visible characteristics. The evidence is fairly clear that this results in people of color suffering much more violence at the hands of, well, everyone, but certainly police than white people do. The better we come to understand natural human implicit racial (and other) bias, to me the more unlikely it seems we’ll ever be able to really make significant progress in combatting it. That may be excessively pessimistic, but that’s how it looks to me.

Police Station No. 5 abandoned site, Cincinnati, OH. (Wikimedia commons)

Police Station No. 5 abandoned site, Cincinnati, OH.
(Wikimedia commons)

SO, here’s the idea. If the bulk of street policing could ever be accomplished by robots, it should be possible to program the robots to have essentially zero regard for self-safety, allowing them to use only as much force as necessary to maintain peace and order and enforce the laws. This seems like it should allow for less force to be used in the course of making arrests and generally interacting with the populace.

Also, the better we come to understand humans’ biases relating to superficial human traits in others, and the better we come to understand computer learning, perhaps the better we’d be able to exclude it from thinking and reflexes in (eventual) non-human brains. Robot cops should (Obviously this entire item is self-consciously, or perhaps just hypothetically, wildly optimistic about prospects for technological progress in this are) ideally be able to operate with essentially no racial or other common human bias regarding external human traits. Hopefully in the future we will be able to program robots to treat human subjects with the kind of equality that we can’t seem to muster ourselves.

Clearly there would be drawbacks. I expect robot capabilities in community policing would stay considerably behind those of human police for years and years after robot police became an initially vibe technology. But what robot police could do would be to allow humans to radically redefine the role of the human police officer, such that she might be redefined as not a police officer, but as an (unarmed) community-aid agent, who by definition of the job does not enter situations of significant danger, and is not authorized to use any more force in any circumstance than any other civilian human.

More ominously, it’s hard not to fear that accountability for inevitable accidents and incidents of unjustified violence would be even more fractured than what we have today. To a degree, however, this makes me reflect on what it is we’re asking from beat cops while also reflecting on the inadequacy of our present system of accountability for them.

Police unions would obviously oppose this because of the resulting loss of jobs, authority, and outright physical power in society. They would probably successfully defeat it outright, and if not that then forestall it for decades, if it ever became a realistic possibility. But notwithstanding technical and social-political obstacles, and notwithstanding many extremely reasonable concerns about effects and accountability, it’s not clear to me that this isn’t a blue-sky possibility worth evaluating, whose technical plausibility seems something less than completely remote.

What is your reaction to this idea?


1. Asking you to work with me here. Presumably the dynamics contributing to excessive police violence are numerous and complex.

(Featured image associated with this post on OT main page from http://www.davidicke.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-204690-p-12.html.)

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14 thoughts on “Opposite Day: Cops Should Be Robots

  1. Well, perhaps this is taking this post to seriously, but I suspect that robots, being made by humans, will still have problems with bias. I can imagine, all too easily, sitting in a conference room with other engineers discussing whether to build a subsystem to classify skin color and racial type, and how to use that data. I can imagine some saying that “we’re dropping valuable information on the floor.”

    Sigh. Humans are terrible.

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  2. Damon,

    I don’t see the relevance of that paper to anything happening out in the streets. For one, it just provides an account of why cops act as they do while conceding that they do, in fact, act in ridiculous, unjust ways. It also leaves out the racial element in all this, which is what’s driving the protests in the streets. (I know libertarians wanna criticize those folks for not protesting cop-on-citizen-more-generally abuse, but that’s like criticizing a tiger for not being a lion. Two different things. Thirdly, introducing the notion of white’s fear of youths on city sidewalks as an explanatory account of … well, anything other than why white’s turn a blind eye to the racism expressed by our criminal justice system … misfires since if cop culture is reflective of the interests of urban whites, then urban whites (and not the protestors) need to read more academic papers on social dynamics.

    Until the role of government police is shrunk dramatically, even eliminated,

    That’s just not true. It certainly doesn’t follow from anything argued in the paper, and it’s not empirically the case. Well, OK, that’s not *quite* right: the conclusion is trivially true if we think that the role of gummint police includes widely disparate and unjust applications of procedure and policy based on race.

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