A Philosopher's Blog

Policebot Profiling

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2016

In 2016 the Dallas police used a remotely operated robot to kill a suspect with a bomb. While this marked a new use for robots in the realm of domestic policing, the decision making process was entirely conventional. That is, humans decided to use the machine and then a human operator controlled it for the attack. As such a true policebot is still a thing of science fiction. That said, considering policebots provides an interesting way to discuss police profiling in a speculative setting. While it might be objected that the discussion should focus on real police profiling, there are advantages to discussing controversial matters within a speculative context. One important advantage is that such a setting can help dampen emotional responses and enable a more rational discussion. The speculative context helps make the discussion less threatening to some who might react with greater hostility to discussions focused on the actual world. Star Trek’s discussion of issues of race in the 1960s through the use of science fiction is an excellent example of this sort of approach. Now, to the matter of policebots.

The policebots under consideration are those that would be capable of a high degree of autonomous operation. At the low end of autonomy, they could be deployed to handle traffic laws on their own. On the higher end, they could operate autonomously to conduct arrests of suspects who might resist arrest violently. Near the highest end would be robotic police at least as capable as human beings.

While there are legitimate worries that policebots could be used as unquestioning servants of the state to oppress and control elements of the population (something we will certainly see), there are also good reasons for using suitably advanced policebots. One obvious advantage is that policebots would be more resilient and easier to repair than human officers. Policebots that are not people would also be far more expendable and thus could save human lives by taking on the dangerous tasks of policing (such as engaging armed suspects). Another advantage is that robots will probably not get tired or bored, thus allowing them to patrol around the clock with maximum efficiency. Robots are also unlikely to be subject to the corrupting factors that influence humans or suffer from personal issues. There is also the possibility that policebots could be far more objective than human officers—this is, in fact, the main concern of this essay.

Like a human office, policbots would need to identify criminal behavior. In some cases this would be fairly easy. For example, an autonomous police drone could easily spot and ticket most traffic violations. In other cases, this would be incredibly complicated. For example, a policebot patrolling a neighborhood would need to discern between children playing at cops & robbers and people engaged in actual violence. As another example, a policebot on patrol would need to be able to sort out the difference between a couple having a public argument and an assault in progress.

In addition to sorting out criminal behavior from non-criminal behavior, policebots would also need to decide on how to focus their attention. For example, a policebot would need to determine who gets special attention in a neighborhood because they are acting suspicious or seem to be out of place. Assuming that policebots would be programed, the decision making process would be explicitly laid out in the code. Such focusing decisions would seem to be, by definition, based in profiling and this gives rise to important moral concerns.

Profiling that is based on behavior would seem to be generally acceptable, provided that such behavior is clearly linked to criminal activities and not to, as an example, ethnicity. For example, it would seem perfectly reasonable to focus attention on a person who makes an effort to stick to the shadows around houses while paying undue attention to houses that seem to be unoccupied at the time. While such a person might be a shy fellow who likes staring at unlit houses as a pastime, there is a reasonable chance he is casing the area for a robbery. As such, the policebot would be warranted in focusing on him.

The most obviously controversial area would be using certain demographic data for profiles. Young men tend to commit more crimes than middle-aged women. On the one hand, this would seem to be relevant data for programing a policebot. On the other hand, it could be argued that this would give the policebot a gender and age bias that would be morally wrong despite being factually accurate. It becomes vastly more controversial when data about such things as ethnicity, economic class and religion are considered. If accurate and objective data links such factors to a person being more likely to engage in crime, then a rather important moral concern arises. Obviously enough, if such data were not accurate, then it should not be included.

Sorting out the accuracy of such data can be problematic and there are sometimes circular appeals. For example, someone might defend the higher arrest rate of blacks by claiming that blacks commit more crimes than whites. When it is objected that the higher arrest right could be partially due to bias in policing, the reply is often that blacks commit more crimes and the proof is that blacks are arrested more than whites. That is, the justification runs in a circle.

But suppose that objective and accurate data showed links between the controversial demographic categories and crime. In that case, leaving it out of the programing could make policebots less effective. This could have the consequence of allowing more crimes to occur. This harm would need to be weighed against the harm of having the policebots programmed to profile based on such factors. One area of concern is public perception of the policebots and their use of profiling. This could have negative consequences that could outweigh the harm of having less efficient policebots.

Another area of potential harm is that even if the policebots operated on accurate data, they would still end up arresting people disproportionally, thus potentially causing harm that would exceed the harm done by the loss of effectiveness. This also ties into higher level moral concerns about the reasons why specific groups might commit more crimes than others and these reasons often include social injustice and economic inequality. As such, even “properly” programmed policebots could actually be arresting the victims of social and economic crimes. This suggests an interesting idea for a science fiction story: policebots that decide to reduce crime by going after the social and economic causes of crime rather than arresting people to enforce an unjust social order.


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39 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 14, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Will we have philosophy professor bots in the future, too?

    • ronster12012 said, on September 14, 2016 at 9:27 am


      Your comment got me thinking that if there ever are true AI philosophy bots then that will mean the end of philosophy. That is because philosophy, as an attempt to understand reality by humans is largely subjective given all the different philosophical approaches. Therefore, any truly objective bot eliminates all speculation because there will be nothing to speculate about….unless it comes out with something enigmatic like Deep Thought did in the Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy and its answer of “42” to the question of the meaning of life.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 14, 2016 at 10:18 pm

        I prefer the human element. Even if it’s not “efficient”.

        • ronster12012 said, on September 15, 2016 at 3:44 am


          ‘Efficiency’ will be the death of us all….

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 15, 2016 at 1:00 pm

            “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.” ~ Jacques Ellul

  2. ronster12012 said, on September 14, 2016 at 9:47 am


    I don’t understand why you are worrying about any disproportion in arrest rates. If a policebot, presumably objective arrests one group more than another then there must be an actual difference in crime propensity no?
    Our legal system is based on impartiality, it is very dangerous to abandon that.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2016 at 6:43 pm

      I don’t think our system is impartial in practice.

      What do you mean by “propensity”? Is it that people in circumstance X (such as poverty) tend to commit more crimes of a certain sort? If so, I would agree that circumstances contribute to crime rates.

      • wtp said, on September 14, 2016 at 7:35 pm

        But of course it would be completely rediculous to infer that crime rates and one’s willingness to commit crime could possibly contribute to circumstances.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 15, 2016 at 6:33 pm

          Not at all; some people who grow up and live in excellent circumstances commit crimes; many who grow up in poverty and lack opportunities do not.

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm

            The police don’t care about “Why?” they care about catching criminals. In virtually every city throughout the USA the majority of violent criminals are black. Although comprising only 13.2% of the US population (Source: 2014 US Census Data), blacks commit more murders (52.2% of total) and more robberies (56.4% of total) than any other race in the US. (Source: FBI 2013 Crime Data; Table 43). Whenever you feel like checking the DC Police Twitter feeds you can be certain 99% of the violent criminals they’re looking for are black males (B/M) https://twitter.com/DCPoliceDept The DC Police don’t care “Why?” they only care about catching the criminals. Unfortunately, the DC justice system allows repeat violent offenders back on the street time after time. “D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier leaves her post in two weeks with high popularity and crime down over her tenure but frustrated by a system that she said allows repeat violent offenders back on the street time after time…” Continue reading: Outgoing police chief decries District’s ‘broken’ criminal justice system http://wpo.st/zdbw1 And it’s not just DC, it’s virtually every city in the USA… Wanted man arrested 74 times but charges have always reduced to misdemeanors or dropped: Former Woodland Hills Escapee Sought In Shooting: https://youtu.be/sVsva74o0Ww Police Union frustrated by repeat offenders back on the streets http://www.wowt.com/content/news/Police-union-frustrated-by-repeat-offenders-back-on-the-streets-393469741.html

          • wtp said, on September 16, 2016 at 5:07 pm

            And yet you chose not to say that. Let’s not play this same damn game over and over and over again. Your philosophy is biased. It is thus sophistry.

      • ronster12012 said, on September 15, 2016 at 4:10 am


        Propensity = impulse control?. And yes, circumstances seem to have an effect though perhaps not a direct one.

        I also wonder if whites (since this is a racially based discussion) were ever given leeway by the judicial system when they lived in crime ridden shitholes. Would they have gotten away with the defense of being a discriminated minority.

        I am also wondering how the hugely disproportionate incidence of black on white rape versus white on black rape(OK, aesthetics has a fair bit to do with it) can be attributed to poverty.

        Another question…is it doing black any favours by looking for too many ways to mitigate/explain their behaviour?

  3. david halbstein said, on September 14, 2016 at 9:47 am

    In my city (as in cities all around the country), we already have police bots controlling traffic. They don’t walk around the streets like some kind of modern day Gort, disproportionately detaining African Americans thanks to faulty (or heinously fiendish) programming, they are cameras set up at red lights, and a system to automatically issue traffic tickets to the registered owners of cars whose license numbers show up on the pictures.

    The focus of these cameras is not some racist execution of draconian laws, nor is it the safety of the population but rather, not surprisingly, increased revenue. According to a statement by Eric Skrum, Communications Director for the National Motorists Association, ” Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest manufacturers of red light cameras in the U.S., has included clauses in their contracts that prohibit city engineers from applying engineering practices that improve compliance and reduce accidents, apparently to maintain the flow of ticket camera revenue.”

    In fact, the flow of revenue can be adjusted like a water faucet by minor tweaks in the timing of the yellow lights.

    Of course, in politics, revenue means power.

    In a broader sense, we already have massive profiling bots monitoring our every move, and we comply with their thirst for information willingly. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Netflix and even blogs like this one compile statistical data about us with every keystroke. Remember the Boston Marathon bombers? Go back and read the reports of how those guys were caught – unless of course it has been sealed. Facebook profiling algorithms were applied and compared to street-camera data to catch these criminals in a matter of hours.

    While this result was widely hailed as very successful, it has the very dangerous aspect of lulling us into a false sense of security. After all, what do we care if the data on us is compiled, as long as we know we haven’t done anything wrong?

    The problem is that the definition of “wrong” is fluid, like currency, and changes with the political motivations of those who control the data.

    As usual, we are focused on the minutia, and are ignoring the larger issues.

    • ronster12012 said, on September 15, 2016 at 4:20 am


      Larger issues like political corruption and collusion in serving us up for plucking by whichever commercial interests that have bought the right to do so.

      I heard on the news earlier this year that NSW(state in Australia) had made half a billion dollars(out of 7.5 mil pop) from traffic fines. Will any government ever give that revenue stream up?

      • David Halbstein said, on September 15, 2016 at 9:21 am

        It’s just like the tax on tobacco being used to fund other pet projects. One would hope that traffic fines would be targeted toward reducing risk and tobacco taxes would be targeted toward reducing smoking – but as you imply, once government gets their hands on a revenue stream, it difficult to get them to give it up.

        In the case of traffic violations, it’s one thing to exploit offenders, it’s quite another to increase their number by tweaking yellow-light timing. Makes me a little suspicious of efforts to curb youth smoking at all.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 15, 2016 at 6:34 pm

        Traffic fines are quite the revenue stream; which can be a problem since it can quickly become the state shaking down the citizens.

  4. TJB said, on September 14, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Mike, do you agree that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement will be indirectly responsible for thousands of extra deaths in black neighborhoods?

    Would the BLM movement, therefore, be considered a social cause of crime?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 14, 2016 at 6:40 pm

      How so? What is the causal link between BLM protesting and these alleged deaths-to-be?

      • TJB said, on September 14, 2016 at 8:45 pm

        Rise of BLM = soaring homocide rate in inner cities. I’m sure you can connect the dots.

        • WTP said, on September 15, 2016 at 6:21 am

          . I’m sure you can connect the dots.

          TJ, do you recall my post a couple months ago regarding the leftist line of argument where they feign confusion, as if a fact is so un-PC it is beyond the comprehension of their virtuous sensibilities? I copied it from somewhere. Wish I had saved it. It was very well stated. I will try to summarize… His inability to understand your point is nothing more than a passive-aggressive means of implying that you are are being so incredibly racist, that you’re beyond comprehension. And that he is sooooo virtuous, such rotten thoughts would never enter his pure mind.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 15, 2016 at 6:32 pm

          But what is the causal link? Are you implying BLM members are engaging in inner city homicides?

          • TJB said, on September 15, 2016 at 10:20 pm

            Mike, I guess it must be a mystery to you why the homocide rate is skyrocketing in the inner cities. Any guesses?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 16, 2016 at 2:14 pm

              I must confess my ignorance of the link; but you are surely holding out on me and know the truth. Enlighten us!

            • wtp said, on September 16, 2016 at 5:09 pm

              Enlighten us!

              I don’t think there’s an “us” that needs enlightened. Just you.

            • TJB said, on September 16, 2016 at 10:16 pm

              Mike, here is a hint from the Director of the FBI:


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2016 at 12:35 pm

              So, your explanation is that BLM encourages the public to take videos of police when the the police violate procedure or the law; thus causing the police to be more cautious; thus resulting in more murders?

              It is certainly worth considering the impact of the use of smart phones on officer job performance. On the one hand, one might argue that a person who is doing their job properly has nothing to worry about (do nothing wrong, there is nothing wrong to film). Just like people say that if a person is doing nothing wrong, they need not worry about being arrested. On the other hand, it could be contended that policing, by its very nature, can look very bad to people who do not understand what it actually takes to subdue a person. So, legitimate force might be perceived wrongly as excessive.

              It is also worth considering the impact of community attitudes on policing. If police are regarded and cast as enemies of the people, the police will presumably respond in a negative manner.

            • TJB said, on September 19, 2016 at 8:43 pm

              Mike, it is clear that the BLM movement has led to less aggressive policing in the inner cities, which has led to a spike in the homocide rate.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 23, 2016 at 10:03 am

              I’ve been looking for objective research that proves that point; but that seems to be lacking. While it is true that BLM appeared and some inner cities saw some increase in homicides. However, this also follows Trump being picked as a candidate (and Hillary as well). To avoid falling into a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, other explanations must be tested. Also, the general crime rate has apparently been declining; should this be credited to BLM?

              Your BLM hypothesis is worth testing; this would involving looking for statistical correlation across cities that have a strong BLM presence, etc. At this point, blaming BLM seems to be a mere hypothesis and political talking point. If a properly conducted study is completed and shows that BLM is causing these deaths, then I would have to accept that hypothesis as a supported causal claim.

              NPR takes a look at some possibilities: http://www.npr.org/2016/03/11/469974819/chicago-murder-rate-spikes-less-aggressive-policing-blamed

            • TJB said, on September 21, 2016 at 10:11 pm

              Mike, do the riots in Charlotte help you to connect the dots?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

              Why not just present your causal hypothesis with a clear statement?

              I certainly appreciate the rhetorical tactic of endeavoring to get someone to make the point for you; but I’d rather see your causal account of.

            • WTP said, on September 22, 2016 at 12:13 am

              Of course not TJ. Connecting dots is racist. Have you learned nothing, lo these many years?

              You’ve been hanging out here as long, if not longer than I have. Years upon years upon years. It’s like our attempts to apply logic to these issues, our energy/essence/whathaveyou is trapped in some black hole or Twilight Zone or Star Trek portal. Like Stopover in a Quiet Town

              I mean it can’t be just the tequila.

            • TJB said, on September 23, 2016 at 12:02 pm

              Mike, I did give my hypothesis here:

              Mike, it is clear that the BLM movement has led to less aggressive policing in the inner cities, which has led to a spike in the homicide rate.

              It looks pretty clear to me.

              What we waiting for is your explanation of the skyrocketing homicide rates, as you are clearly unwilling to see any link between the BLM movement and police behavior.

            • WTP said, on September 23, 2016 at 10:49 pm

              I’ll just leave this here…

              The Black Lives Matter movement began as a hashtag in July 2013 immediately after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Although the movement would be reinforced along the way by any number of lies — “Hands up don’t shoot” comes quickly to mind — not enough attention has been paid to the original lie, one that may eventually launch a thousand riots before it burns itself out, namely that Trayvon Martin was an innocent little boy.

              On March 8, Current TV’s “The Young Turks” took up Trayvon’s cause. Co-host Ana Kasparian, an impressively self-righteous twenty-five at the time, made no fewer than a dozen errors in her five-minute presentation, including this whopper, “There was no self-defense in this situation.” As Kasparian envisioned the action, Zimmerman called 911 and said “there was someone in the gated community who looks very suspicious, i.e. a young black man who makes me uncomfortable.” Apparently to ease his discomfort, “George Zimmerman decides to go ahead and shoot the 17-year-old black boy in the chest which led to his death.”

              “Oh, my God,” gasped her co-host Cenk Uygur. “He just shot him?”

              “He just shot him,” affirmed Kasparian, who then pontificated, “I get so angry when people deny there is racism in this country.”

              In fact, Zimmerman, an Obama supporter, made about as unlikely a racist poster child as America could produce. He had most notably involved himself in a December 2010 incident in which a white police lieutenant’s son sucker punched a black homeless man named Sherman Ware outside a bar. Although Ware suffered a concussion, and there was video evidence of the punch, no action was taken for nearly a month.


              On March 23, four weeks after the shooting, Barack Obama addressed the nation. By this time, the White House had access to all the information the Sanford Police Department did. The courageous step for Obama would have been to defend the police and to demand an end to the media lynching of Zimmerman. As an African American, he had more latitude to do this than a white politician would have.

              If Obama had called attention to the painful fractures in Martin’s domestic life, his suppressed criminal record, his all but unseen descent into drugs and violence, and especially his reckless attack on Zimmerman, Obama could have sent a powerful message to black America. But he did not. He went with the lie.

              Said Obama for the ages, “My main message is to the parents of Trayvon — If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” With the police intimidated into inaction, kids like Trayvon have been dying ever since.

              Read more: http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2016/09/the_lie_that_launched_black_lives_matter.html#ixzz4L8ZPU8nq

            • WTP said, on September 23, 2016 at 10:53 pm

              Damn…missing these two paragraphs that belong just before the second ellipsis…

              As Zimmerman would later relate, he and his wife Shellie printed fliers demanding that the community “hold accountable” officers responsible for misconduct. They then drove the fliers around to area churches and passed them out on a Sunday morning. As a result of the publicity, Police Chief Brian Tooley, whom Zimmerman blasted for his “illegal cover-up and corruption,” was forced to resign, and the lieutenant’s son was arrested.

              Zimmerman headlined his fliers with a famous quote from Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” He might more accurately have quoted another Anglo-Irishman, Oscar Wilde, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In her book on the Zimmerman trial, Suspicion Nation, NBC’s Lisa Bloom does not mention this incident.

            • TJB said, on September 24, 2016 at 11:32 am

              However, this also follows Trump being picked as a candidate (and Hillary as well).

              Mike, this is simply not true. The below is from October 2015, long before Trump was picked.

              Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday stood by his contention that Chicago police officers are becoming “fetal” out of concern they will get in trouble for actions during arrests, blaming officers second-guessing themselves in the wake of high-profile incidents for rising crime rates in Chicago and elsewhere.

              Last week, the mayor was part of a meeting in Washington, D.C., with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and a group of mayors and police officials from across the nation to discuss a spike in homicides and other crime.

              “We have allowed our Police Department to get fetal, and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict … they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact,” Emanuel said, according to the Washington Post.


            • TJB said, on September 24, 2016 at 11:35 am

              This is all Psychology 101.

            • TJB said, on September 24, 2016 at 11:42 am

              Thanks, WTP. I had almost forgotten about George the “white hispanic.”

              By stoking black anger the Dems are playing with fire. It reminds me of Louis Slotin and “tickling the dragon’s tail.”

              Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist, was showing his colleagues how to bring the exposed core of a nuclear weapon nearly to the point of criticality, a tricky operation known as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” The core, sitting by itself on a squat table, looked unremarkable—a hemisphere of dull metal with a nub of plutonium sticking out of its center, the whole thing warm to the touch because of its radioactivity.


  5. ronster12012 said, on September 15, 2016 at 4:26 am

    Re AI and profiling and objectivity etc. Remember earlier this year when Microsoft AI ‘Tay’ turned full on nazi in one day?


    Or when Google images tags blacks as gorillas? http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2015/07/01/google-mistakenly-tags-black-people-as-gorillas-showing-limits-of-algorithms/

    Perhaps we as a species, are not yet ready for true machine objectivity lol

    • WTP said, on September 15, 2016 at 6:29 am

      AI is and will always be a function of its creator, carrying many of the moral flaws it is either programmed to utilize or will learn from its environment. And as it will be judged by its creator, the perception of its effectiveness will itself be a function of its creator. Much folly in this world is rooted in man’s desire to create a god in man’s image.

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