Real-Life PreCrime: Japanese Tech Giant Tries to Predict Crimes Before They Happen

Wednesday, 30 September 2015 - 10:00AM
Wednesday, 30 September 2015 - 10:00AM
Real-Life PreCrime: Japanese Tech Giant Tries to Predict Crimes Before They Happen
In Philip K. Dick's short story, The Minority Report, which then became a beloved Steven Spielberg movie and a tepidly received new TV show, a criminal justice agency called PreCrime arrests perpetrators for what are essentially thought crimes: crimes that they were going to commit but haven't yet. Now, Japanese tech company Hitachi claims they are developing a program that can pinpoint when and where a crime will occur, allowing police to prevent crimes before they happen.

It's not quite PreCrime, as the program statistically models where and when crime is most likely to occur, rather than predicting specific crimes that will be committed by specific people. Plus, the precogs of Minority Report are supernatural, which naturally gives them an edge.

Opening quote
"We don't have any precogs as part of our system," Darrin Lipscomb, who developed the crime-monitoring software and now works at Hitachi, told Fast Company. "If we determined that the precogs were actually somewhat accurate, we could certainly use their predictions to feed into our model."
Closing quote


But even so, according to Hitachi, the program can make predictions fairly accurately. And rather than just deciding which locations are generally more dangerous, or which times of day see the most crime. Rather, it takes every factor into account in order to determine day-by-day where and when crimes are going to happen.

Opening quote
"A human just can't handle when you get to the tens or hundreds of variables that could impact crime, like weather, social media, proximity to schools, Metro [subway] stations, gunshot sensors, 911 calls." said Lipscomb.
Closing quote


Police departments already use crime modeling; according to Mark Jules, who co-founded two companies with Lipscomb and also works at Hitachi, the police take into account several factors, like proximity to schools and keywords on Twitter. At first blush, this sounds like drug dealers are explicitly discussing their illegal exploits on Twitter, but as it turns out, they're using code words, which is almost as silly:

Opening quote
"Gangs, for instance, use these different keywords to maybe meet up or perform some action," said Lipscomb. "I don't know what that keyword is…but with our approach we can actually pick out something that's abnormal, like someone's using an off-topic word, and using it in a very tight density or proximity, and that's going to get a bigger weight."
Closing quote


This is a far cry from Minority Report, but it's still a slippery slope into something comparable to PreCrime. Lipscomb and Jules acknowledge that social media is one of the most important factors (if only people could stop showing off their illegal activities in public forums), and if that's the case, then it is, in fact, predicting that specific people will commit specific crimes. The technology seems to be in its infancy so far (about half a dozen cities will join a proof of concept test beginning in October), but as it becomes more advanced, it may be able to accurately predict not just locations and times, but perpetrators as well. It may never be accurate enough to justify arresting people, but it's easy to imagine the technology becoming accurate enough that it causes the police to systematically target specific "at risk" people, which is treading on dangerous ground.

Via Quartz.
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