Saturday, December 31, 2011

Predictive policing and the PreCog paradox

Once they notice you, Jason realized, they never completely close the file. You can never get back your anonymity. It is vital not to be noticed in the first place.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said - Philip K. Dick (1974)

Philip K Dick was among the greatest sci-fi writers. He wrote award-winning books that became film noir classics like Bladerunner and Minority Report. Clearly, Dick was deeply suspicious of authority and technology.

I wonder if he'd agree with Malcolm Sparrow's critique of evidence-based policing? What would he think of mathematicians who want to solve the city with math? Or experiments to predict when or where crime will happen before it does?

And now NPR reports there's a new LAPD unit dedicated to predictive analysis. Some say this is our tomorrow. On closer inspection it seems like cost/benefit gone amok.

Minority Report celebrates PreCogs, mutated humans who predict murder ahead of time - celebrated until they predict murder by the cop supposed to stop it. Logical calculation gone amok?

In Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, modern philosopher John Ralston Saul says we must guard against the unsentimental application of cost/benefit analysis and logical calculation. That's why, he says, "experts" are so often wrong. There are some things we cannot accurately predict. Weather for one. The economy for another, as recent events prove.

This is particularly true regarding crime. Saul says when predictive experts fail they are just replaced by a new group who say they can do better.

Voltaire once warned against adopting a vulgar rationalism (aka predictive technology) to determine what is, and what is not, appropriate use of authority and technology.

If we are to use predictive technology, may 2012 be the year we wake up to our own shortcomings for using it wisely.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Anonymous said...

I recently discovered your blog, and I have become a frequent reader. We recently published an article “10 Professors Who Were Caught Dealing Drugs” that dovetails well with your audience. Perhaps you would be interested in sharing with them?

Here's the link:

Thanks for the great content, and I hope the article I've linked primes your interest.

Jasmine Hall

GSaville said...

Thanks Jasmine for the link and info on crooked profs. What scoundrels.

Goes to show crime is not the purview of gangs and mobsters but can infect anyone, anywhere.

Look at Wall Street!