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Tomorrow’s world: Virtual and fragile?

In this opinion piece, Sam Fenwick looks at some of the unsettling factors that will affect the world of policing in the coming decades, as well as their potential impacts on the critical communications industry

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We live in strange times. On one hand, the rise of machine learning, big data and autonomous transport will transform the way we commit and solve crimes, while growing consumption and our stubborn refusal to live within our ecological means threaten society’s foundations. 

Millions of people in the US drive vehicles for their living, and the majority are males without college degrees who have felt much of the pain caused by globalisation and the hollowing out of the country’s manufacturing sector. While it may be decades before autonomous vehicle technology is both mature enough and rolled out across enough of the vehicle fleet to make a difference, it’s hard to see how this can be a good thing for the jobs market, which has implications for those tasked with maintaining civil order. 

Brexit and President Trump’s rise to power have been attributed by many to the frustration caused by the fact that while globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty, it has left many in the developed world behind. I suspect that the frustrations of those who voted against the status quo will continue to grow as automation continues to chip away at the jobs market. Given people’s tendency to blame others and the disturbingly eff ective job the right-wing press is doing at funnelling this resentment towards minorities and the most vulnerable in society, I suspect that policing will increasingly focus on dealing with attacks against them, while being drained of resources as populist politicians continue to chip away at social care provision, forcing the police to take up much of the slack.

President Trump’s tactic of labelling any coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news” and the number of statements that he and his team put out that are swiftly disproved, combined with the creation of social media bubbles/echo chambers, have worrying implications for law and order. At its heart, any justice system is based on the premise that facts are objective. If the public and by extension jurors believe that they can choose the facts that fit their preexisting beliefs and prejudices then the courts have a problem. 

I can see this increasing the importance of video evidence. Today’s body-worn video deployments are justified by the savings obtained from the reduction in lawsuits and complaints even before other benefits are factored in, but in future they may be almost essential when it comes to obtaining convictions.

However, technology is also making it harder to trust video. I recently saw a video demonstrating software that allows an actor’s expressions and lip movements to be mapped onto those of a public figure’s in real time. Combined with technology that can give speech someone else’s voice and delivery, provided you have 20 minutes’ footage of them speaking, and we have the prospect of criminals potentially being able to put words into the mouths of presidents. Should one or two high-profile incidents of this nature occur, then we can expect incredible focus on how public safety organisations gather, process and store video evidence. 

 Returning to the topic of automation, it might not be completely without benefits for the public safety community. Homo sapiens did not evolve to control metal boxes travelling at 70 miles an hour. I recently saw an accident take place outside my flat, in which a driver decided to turn into a road in the wrong lane, straight into the bonnet of a stationary vehicle waiting to turn left. While autonomous vehicles are not yet perfect, if they are programmed to obey the rules of the road at all times then such obvious mistakes will be eliminated. With 90-93 per cent of driving accidents caused by human error, the switch to a fully autonomous driving fleet can be expected to massively reduce the fearsome death toll on our roads, and through doing so free up a great deal of first responder resources.

In addition, autonomous vehicles may make it easier for society to accept the use of UAVs for public safety, for more than just situational awareness and surveillance. The benefits to life and limb could be substantial, given how quickly a suitably equipped UAV stationed on a street corner could respond to someone running amok or experiencing a heart attack.  

Modern crime
White-collar jobs aren’t immune to computerisation. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated back in 2013 that about 47 per cent of US employment is vulnerable to automation, and “a substantial share of employment in services, sales and construction occupations exhibit high probabilities of computerisation”. This has sparked discussion about whether some form of basic income will be needed to allow people to buy goods and services in the absence of employment to keep the economy ticking over.  

World of Warcraft (a popular online computer game) accounts were worth more than stolen credit cards details back in 2007, while a real-life murder over a virtual in-game item took place in China back in 2004. In the same country, many people are employed to earn virtual currencies in computer games, which are then bought using real money by time-poor Westerners. This, together with advances in VR and AR, suggests that should society successfully transition to a basic income economic model, perhaps with a “cultural output” supplement, people may spend a great deal of their time playing roles in increasingly complex online games and being recognised for their skill in doing so.

As the value shifts online, so will the crime. Attacking financial institutions over the internet already offers far greater rewards to criminals and almost no physical risks compared with a traditional bank robbery. For example, according to Reuters, hackers tried to transfer nearly $1bn from the Bangladeshi central bank, and while most of the transfers were blocked, around $81m was sent to a bank in the Philippines, and at the time of the story (May 2016), much of it was still missing. Over in the UK, fraud and cybercrime now make up nearly half of all crime, according to a survey performed by the Office for National Statistics.  

At the less personal level, the growing Internet of Things may lead to hackers deliberately sabotaging crops for financial gain. Also, if AIs are doing most of the work, then it follows that subverting their functions could be extremely lucrative to criminal organisations with the right skills. While today’s AIs are in the hands of tech corporations, what would happen if machine learning became so ubiquitous that a criminal could develop an AI that would perform millions of sophisticated cyberattacks an hour? 

All this begs the question: will two-way radios and the other electronic requirement worn by police officers and security personnel be needed in the same quantities as they are today if crime continues to shift online? One factor that may put a floor under any decline is the simple fact that as long as people can satisfy (often very physical) vices in the real world more easily than they can in the virtual world, public safety organisations will still need to tackle narcotics, human trafficking and crimes of passion, even if physical theft, burglaries and traffic offences fade away. 

Given the current rate of progress in speech and facial recognition and the growing adoption of body-worn video cameras, should we as an industry be putting the policeman’s notebook in our sights? After all, the smartphone generation is likely to be far less practised with handwriting than its predecessors, and the combination of information overload and being able to bring facts up instantly on smart devices, and the growing use of body-worn video, are hardly conducive to the strong powers of recollection that are part and parcel of traditional policing. Manufacturers may benefit from factoring this trend into the design of new devices and software packages, but through doing so, they will undoubtedly make the problem worse!  

While mobile working apps are already allowing officers to carry out routine administrative tasks in their patrol cars, a system that automatically generates a written summary of an officer’s observations and interactions could threaten police officers’ discretion, and if allowed to develop unchecked, could mark a return to the ‘sin once, damned forever’ Les Misérables mentality of the past. Against this must be weighed both the argument that the inability or unwillingness to enforce certain laws is corrosive to the rule of law in general, and the suffering that flourishes when prejudices and invested interests turn a blind eye (the disturbingly high level of sexual abuse in US college campuses being a case in point).   

On the network infrastructure side of things, I recently interviewed William Webb, the author of The 5G Myth: And why consistent connectivity is a better future, in Land MobileTETRA Today’s sister magazine. He highlights the potential dangers to equipment vendors if 5G fails to be a commercial success, which in his mind is a possibility, given that mobile operators are struggling to increase the average revenue per user (ARPU), and that the explosive growth in data forecast by some consultants has to be predicated on video, yet there are only so many hours in the day we can devote to watching video, the size of handsets doesn’t play to HD video’s strengths, and the vast majority of video consumption takes place in the home. If the only incentive for MNOs to invest in expensive 5G networks is to preserve market share, that doesn’t bode well for them in the long term and this could disrupt the cycle of infrastructure spending on which the vendor community has come to depend. 

This matters given that the critical comms industry is converging with the wider telecoms sector. If one of the big mobile network vendors became vulnerable to a hostile takeover from a nationstate-backed corporation, what would be the implications for critical communications networks using that vendor’s equipment? 

While we’re on this subject, I hope the recent developments in our industry will mean that the boards of the big vendors will take a more critical approach to large-scale acquisitions. 

Organic growth may be slower, but it keeps debt down – always a good thing when your customers are governments looking for long-term partners. One factor that may keep the critical comms industry highly consolidated is the wider trend of gathering anonymised data on device performance and then using this to drive continual improvements. Consequently, disruptive start-ups will increasingly be snapped up by the established players, rather than growing to a point where they can challenge the status quo. 

An uncertain future
Public safety organisations and their suppliers may face a paradox: if we manage the transition to a post-traditional employment society correctly, there will be less physical crime as society becomes increasingly focused on virtual pursuits, but society may become more fragile, due to the growing risks from climate-change-driven natural disasters and the impact climate change will have on migration and food security. This may lead to the heads of public safety organisations facing the same sort of budgetary pressures from politicians that tend to be inflicted on militaries during peacetime, when the need for funding may have actually increased. 

There is the danger that climate change will create environmental refugees on a scale that makes the flight from the Syrian civil war pale in comparison. The UN has reported that 20 million people in Kenya, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia are facing or at risk of famine, due to war and drought, while recent analysis has found that under a business-as-usual scenario, maximum temperatures in the MENA region could rise from 43°C to 46°C by the middle of the century, and reach almost 50°C by its end.  

While the increasing cost-competitiveness and maturity of renewable energy and electric vehicles (which I suspect have implications for the ATEX handset market) is to be welcomed, much more needs to be done if we are to limit warming to 2°C. If climate change does trigger mass migration from MENA into Northern Europe, then it’s hard to see how the Schengen Agreement could continue in its current form. What effect would this have on cross-border operation and interworking/ ISI? Perhaps the increased need to police and control the borders will more than counteract the reduction in workload caused by it being harder for wanted criminals to cross borders without coming to the attention of the authorities.

If Europe’s public safety organisations have to deal with the issues created by a huge influx of refugees in a short space of time, then multilingual applications and tools that allow officers to easily communicate with those who don’t speak the same language will be needed more than they are today. One possible model would be Dubai Ambulance, which has had to deal with the fact that very few of its medics speak Arabic and has developed an app to help them learn it, and can play common medical questions and phrases to help them interact with patients while they are still learning.  

Globalisation’s current trajectory suggests that the Western world may not be able to buy its way out of a food crisis, given that other nations are quickly catching up with us and the tendency to value food over complex abstract services when bellies are empty. A post-employment universal income society may be more amenable to rationing than the one we have today, but may be even less equipped to cope with a long-term loss of electricity or other modern essentials. 

A global famine would be public safety organisations’ ultimate test. In this situation, communications between first responders will be civilisation-critical, given that their actions and morale could mean the different between survival and descent into anarchy. A prearranged plan to secure their loved ones, so that they are not torn between the need to protect their family and their duty to their fellow officers and the public, is essential. 

At the same time, it is possible to go too far. One striking though fictional example of this is in World War Z (the book rather than the awful film), when the situational awareness and communications equipment given to the troops on the ground allows panic to spread like an airborne virus. I wonder if zombies’ place in popular culture may be partly due to the subconscious fears created by the size and density of our population and the barren nature of our artificial environment. To my mind, a scenario in which the food supply is disrupted, even for a month, is far more plausible and terrifying than an attack of the walking dead. 

The issues I have raised in this article are wicked problems that no single organisation or country has the power to address. However, in anticipating them, it is possible to plan and start getting the groundwork in place so that when disaster strikes, first responders have the tools to do their best when the need is greatest.


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