When civil liberties advocates discuss the dangers of new policing technologies, they often point to sci-fi films like RoboCop and Minority Report as cautionary tales. In RoboCop, a massive corporation purchases Detroit’s entire police department. After one of its officer gets fatally shot on duty, the company sees an opportunity to save on labor costs by reanimating the officer’s body with sleek weapons, predictive analytics, facial recognition, and the ability to record and transmit live video.
Although intended as a grim allegory of the pitfalls of relying on untested, proprietary algorithms to make lethal force decisions, RoboCop has long been taken by corporations as a roadmap. And no company has been better poised than Taser International, the world’s largest police body camera vendor, to turn the film’s ironic vision into an earnest reality.
In 2010, Taser’s longtime vice president Steve Tuttle “proudly predicted” to GQ that once police can search a crowd for outstanding warrants using real-time face recognition, “every cop will be RoboCop.” Now Taser has announced that it will provide any police department in the nation with free body cameras, along with a year of free “data storage, training, and support.” The company’s goal is not just to corner the camera market, but to dramatically increase the video streaming into its servers.
With an estimated one third of departments using body cameras, police officers have been generating millions of hours of video footage. Taser stores terabytes of such video on Evidence.com, in private servers to which police agencies must continuously subscribe for a monthly fee. Data from these recordings is rarely analyzed for investigative purposes, though, and Taser — which recently rebranded itself as a technology company and renamed itself “Axon” — is hoping to change that.
Taser has started to get into the business of making sense of its enormous archive of video footage by building an in-house “AI team.” In February, the company acquired two computer vision start-ups, Dextro and Fossil Group Inc. Taser says the companies will allow agencies to automatically redact faces to protect privacy, extract important information, and detect emotions and objects — all without human intervention. This will free officers from the grunt-work of manually writing reports and tagging videos, a Taser spokesperson wrote in an email. “Our prediction for the next few years is that the process of doing paperwork by hand will begin to disappear from the world of law enforcement, along with many other tedious manual tasks.” Analytics will also allow departments to observe historical patterns in behavior for officer training, the spokesperson added. “Police departments are now sitting on a vast trove of body-worn footage that gives them insight for the first time into which interactions with the public have been positive versus negative, and how individuals’ actions led to it.”
But looking to the past is just the beginning: Taser is betting that its artificial intelligence tools might be useful not just to determine what happened, but to anticipate what might happen in the future.
“We’ve got all of this law enforcement information with these videos, which is one of the richest treasure troves you could imagine for machine learning,” Taser CEO Rick Smith told PoliceOne in an interview about the company’s AI accquisitions. “Imagine having one person in your agency who would watch every single one of your videos — and remember everything they saw — and then be able to process that and give you the insight into what crimes you could solve, what problems you could deal with. Now, that’s obviously a little further out, but based on what we’re seeing in the artificial intelligence space, that could be within five to seven years.”
As video analytics and machine vision have made rapid gains in recent years, the future long dreaded by privacy experts and celebrated by technology companies is quickly approaching. No longer is the question whether artificial intelligence will transform the legal and lethal limits of policing, but how and for whose profits.
“Everyone refers to the Minority Report … about how they use facial recognition and iris recognition,” said Ron Kirk, director of the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center, which uses both technologies, in an interview with Vocativ. “I actually think that that is the way of the future.”