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Gary Horton: Technology ingrains in modern life

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: April 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.

I recall as a kid seeing those signs on country highways that said, “Patrolled By Aircraft.” You rarely see them now, but in remote stretches, they’re still out there. These used to be pretty controversial things. The notion that “big brother” was up there somewhere, looking down on us, set large number of Americans on edge.

The law was invisibly lurking, waiting to swoop down, should we speed or accidently infringe traffic laws. Most saw the safety benefit in speeding laws, so we’ve rightly gone along with this efficient means of enforcing practical laws. Besides, if one of us got caught, we likely had it coming.

The radar gun became another law-enforcement tool that likewise set a number of American libertarians on edge. With the advent of radar, law enforcement could hide unseen around a corner or just over a hill to nail speeders before they had a chance to recognize the trap into which they had sped.

Fair game, most agree, as we really do want traffic laws enforced for safety’s sake. And, besides, in this case, concerned libertarian drivers could level the playing field somewhat by buying radar detectors.

A few years back, we saw imposing “red-light cameras” installed at major intersections. These odd, part-camera, part-robotic sentries diligently guard intersections, constantly searching for drivers passing late into a yellow or red.

Paid for by private industry by the ticket fees they generate, these law-enforcing automatons don’t ask why you’re in the red; they just record and automatically ticket you. They’re great cash generators for private firms and public agencies alike. And, by the way, they’re also highly effective at curbing red-light runners.

Public safety is, in fact, enhanced, and while civil libertarians decry the nastier implications of intrusive automatic electronic justice, still, most of us have to agree, if we get the ticket, “We likely had it coming.”

I got to thinking about our trips through airport security. You know the drill. You, and hundreds of your fellow law-abiders huddle into long lines to empty your pockets, bags and personal possessions, take off your shoes, belts, hats and expose personal medical devices.

After the partial strip down, we’re mandated to submit to a modernistic X-ray machine, spreading our feet apart and placing our hands over our heads like suspects, while the electronic version of a full strip search is carried out.

Those unwilling to take in the x-rays must undergo an extensive real-life strip search that many find extremely intimidating.

I get it though; as protection against the next potential 9/11, we’ve collectively conceded that 30 extra minutes and the substantial loss of privacy multiplied by 500 million passengers a year is a small price to pay. We might wonder why, until recently they searched the 95-year-old grandmas and babies in strollers — but whatever the intrusion, we understand it’s best to submit to the X-ray intrusion for our common safety.

This past week, I saw a couple of interesting clips on the Web. The first was a cool new drone shaped like a triangle, with helicopter blades at each corner. The whole thing is only about 5 feet across, and is said to be able to cruise over city streets and hover closely over targets of interest. It’s built for reconnaissance and surveillance and will provide increased public security from a vantage point currently unavailable to policing efforts.

It’s easy to see how bad guys will have a hard time getting away from a roving, hovering camera, and if we see one of these things chasing down a suspect, I’m sure there will be a good reason for it to target who it has. With new software being developed all the time, it shouldn’t make many mistakes, and I’m sure that any target it selects will likely “have it coming.”

Besides, it’s just a new twist on the old “patrolled by aircraft” — only the drone can come right to your front door.

More ominous was the clip of the new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency lab humanoid robot with two muscular titanium legs and two muscular titanium arms, looking far, far too similar to something out of “RoboCop” or a “Transformers” movie.

This truly startling humanoid device is already capable of sight, twists and turns and even running up stairs. It’s big and strong, and one can easily see how it might be fitted with anything from robotic hands to grippers to guns.

I can see how such a robot would, in a very practical way, save precious lives, by rescuing victims in burning buildings, robotically scavenging through Afghanistan caves or otherwise doing that which is dangerous to human soldiers and law enforcement. I can also see, with the advent of true artificial intelligence just around the corner, that this bad boy’s son or grandson might just be the cop on the beat over at Town Center Drive.

If you don’t like interfacing with the existing traffic guys in the golf carts at the mall, think for a short moment about encountering the Robot Cop Transformer Safety Unit packing stun guns or more. And forget about Facebook privacy concerns; this guy has already processed every bit and byte of your life’s history from a distance of half the mall. Let’s hope it doesn’t get you confused with the shoplifter fleeing Macy’s.

Not to worry, through. Because, rare network or software glitch aside, if this mechanical Peacebot™ determines you’re guilty, almost certainly, “you likely had it coming.” Still, I have to wonder how humanly it might respond as we nervously explain to its pulsing red eyes, “Funny, my embedded I.D. chip was working fine at the Tilted Kilt just minutes ago …”

They say there’s a brave new world out there. We’ve been incrementally building it for quite a while. Along the way toward efficient security, “brave” may become quite a euphemism for a future far different than we may have hoped or expected.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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