Are We Close to Getting a Real-Life RoboCop?

By  · Published on September 17th, 2014


There’s nothing quite like the autumn when the cooler weather allows you to open your windows and enjoy the fresh night air. And nothing serves as a buzzkill than hearing sirens or gunshots in the distance.

Even as society has grown and people feel they’ve become more enlightened, crime is still a big problem. Sure, not every place is like Detroit in films like Beverly Hills Cop and RoboCop – or like Detroit in present day, for that matter. However, with crime still running rampant in some areas, it’s enough to keep one awake at night (especially if you keep hearing those sirens and gunshots in the night air).

Everyone wants to do something about crime, but it’s not like we really want someone to turn into a maverick cop like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra. In reality, you’d want a super cop to actually care about civil liberties, laws, and individual rights.

Though it’s a really violent film, the title character in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop at least attempts to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. It helps that these prime directives were hard-wired into his programming. And that got me thinking: Is the world ready for a real-life RoboCop?

The Answer: Not yet, but do we really want that?

There are already plenty of robots working for police forces around the country. Of course, they don’t spin their guns like TJ Lazer, and they don’t walk through the precinct with a face shield over the chiseled jaw of Peter Weller.

Robots are frequently used to do jobs that are either too dangerous for people or require physical capabilities beyond that of a normal police officer. The most common use of robots in police departments are for bomb disposal.

These bomb disposal robots can defuse explosives while human officers stay out of harm’s way. Robots are also utilized by the police for search and rescue operations, particularly for locations that can be too dangerous for human officers or in places that are hard for people to reach. Robots like this (known as SAR robots for “search and rescue) are sometimes heavy and bulky to protect themselves from the dangerous environments, or they might be snake-like to extend into hard to reach places to find survivors.

Other uses of robots in police work include assault robots that can be used to breach doors in hostage situations or smaller robots with cameras that can be used for surveillance.

S robots are already used all over the world in law enforcement matters, but they all look like the Mars Rover or compact versions of Johnny Five from Short Circuit. RoboCop was actually a cyborg, since he was a human body’s central nervous system and brain interfaced with robotic prosthetics.

So, if there are already robots working for the cops…

When will we get cybernetic police?

In order to build a cyborg police officer like RoboCop, the science of cybernetics has to go through some pretty significant advances. We will get there eventually, and there are some exciting breakthroughs in the field, but it’s still a long way from full implementation.

There are two basic types of cyberware, both of which are used by a character like RoboCop. The first, and the most illusive, type is an interface with the brain. This can be as simple as a sensor that detects commands that can be sent to a device. It can also be as complicated as using the brain to access and store information, similar to what was depicted in the cyberpunk flop Johnny Mnemonic.

Of course, when dealing with the experimentation of new technology in the human brain, there’s a lot of ethical decisions to consider, including privacy issues, safety of human testing, and equality of delivery of a solution. However, that has not stopped some organizations from pushing forward with research of this kind.

One of the more well-known examples of a device that interfaces with the brain is the cochlear implant, which can help people who have lost their hearing regain it again. Still, this science to unlock access to the entire brain is in its infancy and a long way off from downloading the entire police database of a city into a person’s brain for law enforcement purposes.

The other type of cyberware, which is seeing more advances today, involves prosthetics that integrate into a person’s body. Of course, prosthetics have been around for centuries, and for most of that time, it simply involved an immobile limb replacement (such as the peg leg worn by Long John Silver in Treasure Island) and later devices that physically attach to bones, muscles and tendons.

Recently, there have been some significant advancements in prosthetic technology which brings us one step closer to more realistic limb replacement. One product called LifeHand2 is a prosthetic hand that transmits electrical impulses from an object to the brain to simulate touch. Test patients claim to be able to feel hardness, shape, and texture of an object.

Another advanced prosthetic developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an arm that can be controlled by commands from the brain. In other words, the user doesn’t manipulate the arm by flexing muscles or tendons it is attached to. Instead, the user simply wills his or her arm to move, and it does… just like a real arm.

These prosthetics could eventually be incorporated into one giant upgrade for a severely injured police officer, but there are still many years of development needed for the whole RoboCop package.

So, we won’t see them any time soon, but maybe someday we will. That still begs the question…

Do we really want this?

Over the past several years – an as emphasized by the events in Ferguson, Missouri – there has been an increasing concern over the militarization of the police. This phenomena is happening throughout the country, arming local law enforcement agencies with military fatigues, weaponry, and vehicles.

Wouldn’t a real-life RoboCop be as much overkill for most police departments as their assault tanks and 50-caliber machine guns? The 2014 remake of RoboCop may be been a pale imitation to the original, but it did prophetically present the title character as being something originally designed for military action rather than police duties.

And there is a difference between police and the military… or at least there should be.

Let’s look at RoboCop’s home town for guidance. The charter for the City of Detroit explicitly states the duties of its police department:

The Police Department shall preserve the public peace, prevent crime, arrest offenders, protect the rights of persons and property, guard the public health, preserve order, and enforce laws of the State of Michigan and the United States and the ordinances of the City of Detroit.

Compare this to the U.S. Code, which describes the duties of the military:

It is the intent of Congress to provide an Army that is capable, in conjunction with the other armed forces, of… preserving the peace and security, and providing for the defense, of the United States, the Commonwealths and possessions, and any areas occupied by the United States… In general, the Army, within the Department of the Army, includes land combat and service forces and such aviation and water transport as may be organic therein. It shall be organized, trained, and equipped primarily for prompt and sustained combat incident to operations on land.

The police and the Army may seem similar because they both carry guns, but there’s a huge difference between the objectives of these two organizations. The police are there to preserve peace and protect the rights of civilians. The Army is there to defend and combat.

This is why a RoboCop as envisioned in the movies is, and always will be, a bad idea. A RoboCop decked out for combat would be great for the Army, but it would be an inappropriate weapon for any police force. It makes a good movie, but like Stallone in Cobra, it would be a nightmare in reality.

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