Friday, June 23, 2017

Minority Report and Predictive Policing

Minority report (the movie) is 15 years old. Who knew!

Well I certainly didn't, till I was called by a reporter from CNN who wanted to talk about the legacy of the movie. Here's the link to the story.

It was a depressing conversation. We went over some of the main themes from the movie, and I realized to my horrow how many of them are now part of our reality.

Precogs are now PredPol. Algorithms that claim to know where crime will happen. The companies building predictive policing software will often take umbrage at references to Minority Report because they say they're not targeting people. But all I say is "….yet".

Predictions have errors. The very title of the movie telegraphs the idea of errors in the prediction system. And much of the movie is about a coverup of such a 'minority report'. And yet today we treat our algorithms (precogs) as infallible, and their predictions as truth.

VERY personalized advertising. The main character is targeted by personalized advertising and a good section of the plot involves him trying to get a replacement eyeball so retina scans don't detect him. And then we have this.


Feedback loops. The debate between Agatha (the minority precog) and Anderton about free will leads him to a decision to change his future, which then changes the prediction system. In other words, feedback loops! But feedback loops work both ways. Firstly, predictions are not set in stone: they can be changed by our actions. Secondly, if we don't realize that predictions can be affected by feedback from earlier decisions, our decision-making apparatus can spiral out of control, provably so (consider this a teaser: I'll have more to say in a few days).

What's a little sad for me is because I wasn't sufficiently 'woke' when I first saw the movie, I thought that the coolest part of it was the ingenious visual interfaces on display. We're actually not too far from such systems with VR and AR. But that now seems like such a minor and insignificant part of the future the movie describes.

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