Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” 

Have you ever heard the term “justice porn”? This term (and a less polite alternative) is often seen on the Internet when justice is appropriately served upon a criminal or perpetrator. Here is a formal definition of the term:

“Justice Porn is an Internet slang term that is used to describe true stories and online media depicting events in which criminals, bullies and other aggressors are thwarted, exposed or punished for their wrongdoings.”

This definition perfectly sums things up. Alternative lingo includes the idea of “instant karma,” which is used when the comeuppance happens very quickly after the commission of a crime, or the idea of “schadenfreude,” which may be used in cases where the author wants to sound more erudite about their feelings when talking about a criminal’s fate.

If you would like to experience the delicious feeling of “justice porn” in just two minutes, this video will give you a satisfying dose. It was published by the FBI on YouTube several years ago:

In this video, there is a miscreant on the ground shining a green laser at a helicopter. This act is illegal because the laser can easily blind the pilot either temporarily (by destroying the pilot’s natural night vision in a dark cockpit) or permanently (by burning the pilot’s retina with more powerful lasers).

The thing that is so satisfying about the video is that justice is swift and effective:

  1. The perpetrator shines a green laser at the helicopter.
  2. The helicopter happens to be equipped with an amazing infrared camera and zoom lens, so it is easy to see the perpetrator even though it is nighttime.
  3. The pilot talks to a dispatcher on the ground who can immediately deploy police to the perpetrator’s address.
  4. The perpetrator is arrested within minutes.
  5. Given the video evidence and the laser in the perpetrator’s hand, it is an airtight case.

How are the police able to arrive so quickly? Take a look at this screen shot from the video:

Surveillance image from FBI

In the bottom right corner, you can see the letters TGT. This is short for “target”. Below TGT you see a latitude and longitude: 38°36’02″N and 121°23’23″W. If you plug this lat/lon into Google maps, you will be looking at the neighborhood and house where this crime occurred. In other words, the camera system knows where the camera is pointing. Then the police are dispatched to this location to immediately arrest the perpetrator. The best part is when the police car first drives past the perpetrator and the perpetrator hides behind a parked car. The pilot can see this happen and tell the police to back up for the arrest.

Imagine if this technology could be more ubiquitous

Let’s imagine for a moment that we could deploy more helicopters with this capability. Imagine all the crimes that could be immediately detected and stopped by simply observing what is happening on the ground:

  • Someone is seen painting graffiti on a wall along a highway. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.
  • Someone is seen stealing a package off a porch. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.
  • Someone is seen mugging someone else. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.
  • Someone is seen vandalizing or breaking into a building or a parked car. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.
  • Someone is seen road raging on a highway. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.
  • Someone is seen kidnapping a person off the street and forcing them into a van. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.
  • Someone is seen following a jogger in a car. Police are immediately dispatched to the location to question the driver.
  • Gang members are seen assembling and attacking someone. Police are immediately dispatched to the location for the arrest.

Naturally it would be too expensive to deploy helicopters with human pilots in significant numbers. But it is easier to imagine a fleet of drones flying over a city with Artificial Intelligence (AI) looking for incidents like these. This video describes how police forces are starting to use drone technology, and some of the concerns raised by privacy advocates:

As described in the video, these drones can help with:

  • Finding missing people and missing children
  • Locating and apprehending suspects
  • Scanning and photographing accidents
  • Watching criminals ditch evidence
  • Finding suspects hiding in fields or forests
  • Using drones hundreds of times per year

Now imagine that we can scale up this nascent technology. The following video talks about a potential future where we can observe “every event in an entire city in real time.”

Stationary cameras can also help catch criminals

Having cameras in the air is one way to catch criminals, but a less expensive alternative is stationary cameras on the ground. Combined with AI, these cameras can act as sentinels that are constantly watching for problems.

Compared to a camera on a helicopter or drone, the downside of stationary cameras is their very limited viewpoint. But with enough stationary cameras, an area can have good coverage. Doorbell and floodlight cameras are giving homeowners a way to deter crime, as seen in this video:

In this video, a couple detects a package being stolen from their porch. By following the perpetrator and calling the police, the arrest can occur minutes later.

Now imagine all these stationary cameras being connected to AI systems that can constantly watch for crime. When AI detects a crime unfolding, the AI can call the police and they can arrive on the scene instantly. With increasing numbers of criminals being detected and detained, there is the potential for our society to become increasingly safer.