Nobody can see the future. But the creators of the 2002 film Minority Report made some pretty good guesses about advances in crimefighting and spy tech.
And they’re happening even sooner than anyone imagined.
In the near-future portrayed in the 2002 film Minority Report, set in the year 2054, police stop crimes before they happen, arachnoid robots search buildings for suspects and scan their retinas, and the Internet watches everyone.
What made the film so compelling a piece of sci-fi filmmaking was its believable future, complete with technology that felt like a plausible 50-year progression of very real current science.
That was by design. In 1999, Spielberg invited computer experts, scientists, and architects to a “think tank summit” to help him imagine how 2054 might actually look. Those future-thinkers did their jobs so well that many devices featured in the film have been either invented or fully put to use.
With huge advances in facial recognition, virtual surveillance, and predictive crime analytics, the world of investigations is becoming more and more like the sci-fi world from the film. Here are just a few technologies that have come to pass since the film’s release:
In the Minority Report universe, law enforcement “precogs” can look into the future and help police stop crimes before they’re committed. Although “precogs” exist wholly in the realm of sci-fi, another form of crime prediction is becoming quite real.
Programs like IBM’s Blue Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History (CRUSH) and Hitachi’s Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics (PCA) use “predictive analytics” to forecast where crimes are most likely to be committed, allowing police to focus on those areas.
Similar programs are also being employed by police departments to reduce deadly encounters between police and civilians. By analyzing data about calls answered by specific officers, police departments may be able to identify officers at higher risk for such encounters and take steps to train them before an incident occurs.
Or course, predictive analytics software (unlike “precogs”) can’t see into the minds of future murderers. But the ability to crunch big data and evaluate trends in crime stats can help police address crime in communities by identifying areas to watch.
The core concepts of predictive crime-fighting can be applied to investigations of all types. These methods may shape the future of investigations; as computing technology moves away from the limitations of a singular personal computer, more data tools will be instantly available to the investigator, both at the office and in the field.
In the last few years, government agencies such as the FBI have begun to use drones for surveillance (albeit selectively) in U.S. skies. Some agencies already patrol desolate stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a few military contractors would like to get in on that action. Even local law enforcement agencies are experimenting with using UAVs to monitor civilians.
Those UAVs are a far cry from the spidery enforcers in Minority Report. But a range of insect-like robots are in development, from these “water bugs” that can skip across the surface tension of water to a robo-roach prototype designed by Russian engineers, for possible use by the Russian military in the near future. While these may well be put to good use mapping terrain or on search-and-rescue missions, it’s not hard to imagine them put to use for less utopian purposes.
Facial recognition technology has improved markedly in the 13 years since Minority Report‘s release. The FBI is working on a system called Next Generation Identification (NGI), and is compiling a national database of millions of photos. The accuracy of NGI isn’t good enough yet to replace other biometric identification systems, such as the FBI’s extensive fingerprint database—in part because the photos used (many of them, from surveillance cameras) are of such poor quality.
Facebook is doing far better on this front, for several reasons: It has access to far more (and better) photos, and it can narrow its search based on who’s on your friend list and might, therefore, tend to turn up in photos on your page. Not to mention the fact that a mistaken tag is a much lower-stakes error than a mistaken suspect ID.
There are all sorts of potential applications for facial recognition technology, from ads that target you by scanning your face to facial verification for activating a personal computer. And, of course, law enforcement has a few ideas for how to use this tech.
Earlier this summer, the Dept. of Commerce discussed whether facial recognition tech should be regulated. Those talks were inconclusive—consumer advocates and industry groups could not agree on issues of consent. As the technology improves, this will become an urgent question. As Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic, “From a technological perspective, the ability to successfully conduct mass-scale facial recognition in the wild seems inevitable.”
Minority Report may be a piece of science fiction, but the technology in the film has become a very real part of our world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of investigations. As this technology continues to improve and become increasingly integrated into everyday life, the more routine investigations will start to resemble the world of this film.
About the author:
Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners.
You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyMEvans
“Can Police Use Data Science to Prevent Deadly Encounters?” (Scientific American)
“7 Ways Real-Life Crime Fighting Mirrors ‘Minority Report’” (Fast Company)
“Next Generation Identification” (FBI.gov)
“Who Owns Your Face?” (The Atlantic)