Can you arrest someone for murder before he committed the crime? This may seem like a far-fetched notion, and when in 2002 Minority Report came out, it probably looked like that – a Hollywood science-fiction interpretation of police gone rogue. But twenty years later, this futuristic sci-fi thriller starring Tom Cruise seems terrifyingly relevant to our modern world.
In the film – based on a short story by Philip K. Dick and set in the year 2054 – special people called “precognitives” predict the future. Police officer John Anderton (Tom Cruise) puts together the visions of a seer in his “Precrime” unit to identify murder victims and apprehend the perpetrators before the crime actually occurs.
We may not have “pre-cognitive” mutant humans who convey visions of the future, but the film’s premise corresponds to a very real – and hotly contested – technology police use to try to stop crime before it happens: predictive policing.
“One of the problems with predictive policing is that it creates the illusion of greater certainty and is therefore more likely to lead to miscarriages of justice,” says futurist Andrew Curry Reciprocal.
Roller science is Reciprocal a series that exposes the true (and false) science behind your favorite movies and TV shows.
What is the predictive police?
Trailer to Minority Report (2002).
Seers aside, predictive policing in real life isn’t all that different Minority Report. It basically involves the use of computers and large amounts of data to predict where and when crimes are likely to occur.
In fact, the four general categories of predictive policing — methods of predicting crime, predicting criminals, identifying perpetrators, and predicting victims — are very similar to the information provided by the clairvoyants in the film: murder timestamp and perpetrator identity. murder victim and perpetrator.
But in real life, we rely on AI to interpret datasets instead of clairvoyants. Based on past crime data, algorithms can generate hotspots of likely crime – or, even more controversially, generate a profile of someone who is more likely to commit a crime than the general population.
For example, suppose hypothetical Neighbor A has a history of car break-ins. Police can use predictive policing to justify placing more police cars in the neighborhood compared to neighbor B. Proponents of predictive policing suggest that this is a fairer way to predict future crime hotspots than relying on unreliable human memory. Good algorithms can also help us decide if these hacks are a pattern likely to persist over time, rather than a one-time event.
“Instead of relying on the police to ‘figure out’ problems or remember that a series of car break-ins have occurred, a good algorithm can find these patterns,” Greg Ridgeway, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s criminology department, says Reciprocal.
Is Minority Report believable in real life?
In Minority Report, Anderton’s program is experimental — but seemingly a great success. Since the program was implemented, murder rates have dropped to near zero over the last five years.
Why commit murder if it’s almost certain the police will arrest you? The idea in the movie – and more broadly in real life – is that predictive policing can ultimately deter and reduce crime.
“The idea that AI technologies would predict crime with the same degree of accuracy as in the movie is, in my estimation, mostly a science-fiction invention,” Sven Nyholm, Professor of Philosophy at Utrecht University and author of the book People and robots: ethics, agency and anthropomorphism, says Reciprocal.
However, Sven says future AI technology could help police predict crime with a much greater degree of accuracy than today.
“In other words, the future may not be as we see it Minority Report. But that may require much more accurate crime prediction than what is currently possible,” says Nyholm.
This future may be closer than we think. Over the past decade, police departments across the United States have regularly used preventive policing. The LAPD was one of the first to experiment with a crime prediction algorithm in 2008 – although other California police departments later said the method was not as effective as its proponents had suggested.
Moreover, a recent study by researchers at the University of California used machine learning algorithms to predict the likelihood of re-arrest within three years after a prisoner is released.
Should we be concerned about predictive policing?
Proponents of predictive policing argue that it helps police to deploy scarce resources intelligently using empirically backed data.
“Police would be negligent if they had data and information at hand and didn’t use it to use their limited resources more wisely,” says Ridgeway.
However, civil rights advocates point to serious concerns about predictive policing, such as algorithms amplifying racist biases about perpetrators and crime hotspots based on past information. You risk criminalizing young men who have not necessarily committed a crime – a reality that echoes vaguely Minority Reportpremise. Nyholm says it’s hard to create AI without such biases.
“Because you use historical data as the basis for your predictions, you are effectively perpetuating crime patterns. Whatever prejudices are already present in your police system are reinforced,” adds Curry.
Curry also says there is a lack of transparency about how these algorithms work.
“Often, even the police forces that use them don’t really know what the algorithms are for,” Curry explains.
Nyholm calls AI technology such as predictive policing a “double-edged sword”, potentially making society safer for some groups and less safe for others. The question is whether the costs of anticipating policing outweigh the benefits.
Even if the specifics Minority Report are a cinematic concoction, the basic idea of law enforcement using data to predict crime came true in a way that Philip K. Dick could not have predicted when he published the story more than sixty years ago.
“While the film presents a scenario so extreme that it should be considered pure science fiction, the idea of governments using data about their citizens to prevent crime is by no means science fiction,” concludes Nyholm.
Minority Report is now streaming on Netflix.