This new tech can stop crimes before they happen, and that's terrifying.

Imagine you're all alone in a low-lit parking lot when a big, white robot rolls up to you and offers its protection.

Congratulations: You just met the Knightscope K5, the latest in pre-crime technology!



Weirder things have happened, right? I mean, not many weirder things, but definitely some weirder things. GIF via Knightscope/YouTube.

It might look like the lovechild of R2-D2 and a Dalek, but the K5 is actually the world's first "autonomous data machine." (At least according to the press materials.)

What this actually means is that it roves around parking lots in Silicon Valley using facial recognition software to identify potential criminals, broadcasting massive amounts of information back to the company's private data center, and generally policing through (admittedly adorable) intimidation.

And what's more, this shiny robot cop can be rented out for as low as $6.25 an hour.


All in a day's work. GIF from "Robocop."

Are you feeling like you're living in the future yet? 'Cause the K5 ain't the only tech that allegedly stops crime before it happens.

Back in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security created the Fast Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST. Originally known as Project Hostile Intent (can't imagine why they changed it?), this data-crunching program uses physiological and behavioral patterns to identify individuals with potential to commit violent crimes.

And in September 2015, Hitachi released its fancy new Predictive Crime Analytics, which uses thousands of different factors from weather patterns to word usage in social media posts to identify when and where the next crime could happen.

"We're trying to provide tools for public safety so that [law enforcement is] armed with more information on who's more likely to commit a crime," explained Darrin Lipscomb, one of the creators of this crime-monitoring technology, in a Fast Company article.

He also said, "A human just can't handle when you get to the tens or hundreds of variables that could impact crime."

Sounds an awful lot like a certain Spielberg action movie starring a pre-couch-jumping Tom Cruise.


Speaking of curious behavioral patterns... GIF from "Minority Report."

So what are we waiting for? Let's use all this awesome new technology to put a stop to crime before it starts!

Except ... it's not "crime" if it hasn't happened, is it? You can't arrest someone for trying every car door in the parking lot, even if you do feel pretty confident that they're looking for an open one so they can search inside for things to steal.

And even then: How can you tell the difference between a thief, a homeless person looking for a place to sleep, or someone who just got confused about which car was theirs?

GIF from "Robocop."

Besides: What if the algorithms used in this pre-crime technology are just as biased as human behavior?

Numbers don't lie. But numbers also exist within a context, which means the bigger picture might not be as black and white as you'd think.

Consider the stop-and-frisk policies that currently exist in cities like New York or the TSA screening process at the airport. Those in favor might argue that if black and Muslim Americans are more likely to commit violent crimes, then it makes sense to treat them with extra caution. Those opposed would call that racial profiling.

As for the supposedly objective predictive robot cops? Based on the data available to them, they'd probably rule in favor of racial profiling.

Author/blogger Cory Doctorow explains this problem pretty succinctly:

"The data used to train the algorithm comes from the outcomes of the biased police activity. If the police are stop-and-frisking brown people, then all the weapons and drugs they find will come from brown people. Feed that to an algorithm and ask it where the police should concentrate their energies, and it will dispatch those cops to the same neighborhoods where they've always focused their energy, but this time with a computer-generated racist facewash that lets them argue that they're free from bias."


See how quickly this spirals downward? GIF from "Robocop."

Pre-crime measures might make us feel safer. But they could lead to some even scarier scenarios.

By trying to stop crimes before they happen, we actually end up causing more crime. Just look at all the wonderful work that law enforcement agencies have already done by inadvertently creating terrorists and freely distributing child pornography.

The threat of surveillance from robots and data analysts might stop a handful of crimes, but it also opens up a bigger can of worms about what, exactly, a crime entails.

Because if you think you have "nothing to hide," well, tell that to the disproportionate number of black people imprisoned for marijuana or any of the men who've been arrested in the last few years for consensual sex with another man. (And remember that not too long ago, interracial sex was illegal, too.)


Do you really want these guys showing up at your house when you're trying to get it on? GIF from "Doctor Who."

Hell, if you've ever faked a sick day or purchased a lobster of a certain size, you've committed a felony.

The truth is, we've all committed crimes. And we've probably done it more often than we realized.

Don't get me wrong. It's certainly exciting to see people use these innovative new technologies to make the world safer. But there are others ways to stop crime before it starts without infringing on our civil rights.

For starters, we can fix the broken laws still on the books and create communities that care instead of cultivating fear. There'd be a lot less crime if we just looked after each other.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

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"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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