Hitachi Does Dick

If There's a Flaw, It's Human

By Jim Knipfel

Philip K. Dick was an undeniably brilliant, if paranoid, visionary, a science fiction writer with a unique imagination who played with our notions of reality, consciousness and identity like few have before or since. As brilliant as he was, though, it can't be said that much of what he imagined has exactly come to pass the way it has for, say, Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. But all that may be changing, beginning with one of his most unlikely stories.

Although it bears only the vaguest resemblance to Steven Spielberg's slick, big-budget 2002 film adaptation, Dick's 1956 short story "The Minority Report" (first published in Fantastic Universe magazine) takes place in a near-future where a trio of psychics known as Precogs can envision where and when a murder will occur before it happens, allowing cops of the Pre-Crime Unit to arrest would-be murderers before they have a chance to do any harm.

Now Hitachi Data Systems is promising much the same thing, but only after switching out psychics for software. Mark Jules, Hitachi's Vice President of Public Safety and Data Visualization, says the company's Hitachi Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics system began to evolve after he was called in to provide yet one more layer of security around a 2008 presidential convention (though he won't specify which one). Jules has had a long career as a surveillance specialist, working on contracts for Homeland Security, the CIA, the U.S. military, and several local law-enforcement agencies. He's since been brought in to help safeguard several more conventions, two inaugurations, at least one Super Bowl and the G8 Summit.

In 2008, Hitachi installed 150 surveillance cameras in the neighborhood surrounding the convention, linking all those separate video feeds into a centralized platform. Noting how well that worked and taking a few suggestions from city leaders and law enforcement officials, Jules began layering on other feeds as well. Now Hitachi Visualization takes the form of a detailed interactive city map. The platform aggregates and correlates not only live feeds from thousands of security cameras on street corners, in schools, stores, public transportation systems, office buildings and housing complexes, but also crime stats, weather maps, 911 calls, traffic reports, license plate readers, gunshot detectors, building schematics, and social media activity (i.e. monitoring Facebook exchanges and Twitter posts for certain key words), allowing cops to correlate and access all this material in a blink.

For instance, if a gunshot detector registers shots fired in a specific location, a user can pull up video feeds from all the cameras in the area beginning around the time the shots were fired. They can also pull up any suspicious Twitter postings in the same locale, and check traffic activity. The system can tell you what direction a specific bus is headed, how fast it's going, and monitor any communications taking place on that bus. Since it's a cloud-based system, any cop on the force can access the data with any hand-held device. 

New York Waterways, which presently uses a modified version of the Hitachi system to keep tabs on its ferry fleet, says should there ever be a hostage situation aboard a ferry, they would be able to pull up specific vessel schematics and turn on cameras to determine how many people were involved and pinpoint their location.

The Visualization system was rolled out last fall and made available to any municipal police department that might be interested. Although Hitachi is remaining mum on which cities are currently using it, it's known it was first implemented in Washington, D.C., was just put into operation in Edison, NJ, and is currently in use in six other cities. While the NYPD denies New York is one of them, they do admit having started field-testing a similar system this past January.

Disturbing privacy issues aside, it all seems the inevitable offspring of the Justice Department's Total Information Awareness Program and the NSA, though working on the local level under the guise of public safety. But now Jules is claiming the system can do more than connect all the dots within seconds after a crime has occurred -- it can connect them even before it happens, foreseeing a would-be terrorist attack or random assault within a two-block radius.

As Jules recently told CBS radio, "If you go back and look at hey, it's a Saturday, it's a certain time of day, it's a certain temperature, this is where that's happened… then you combine that with social media that can all start to predict when and where it's going to happen."

The Precogs in Dick's story were referred to as "pattern filters." The Hitachi system works much the same way, sorting through a mountain of data -- far more than any standard human cop could digest or even comprehend -- running it through assorted computer algorithms in search of likely occurrences, assigning threat levels to any given situation.

Although he did not respond to our request for an interview, Jules and other Hitachi executives have explained elsewhere and in a number of demos posted on YouTube that while most police officers build profiles based on their training and past experience, the visualization system, to a degree anyway, removes human prejudice from the decision-making process by providing cops with hard data about a specific time, place, and scenario.

Of course some serious issues and problems still remain. To return to Dick's story, if all three Precogs share a single vision of a future crime, then that crime is considered an inevitability unless there is some earlier intervention. Should one of the Precogs have a different vision, however (hence the story's title), things get a little fuzzy. But we're not dealing with psychics here, we're dealing with computer programs. While they may be able to predict outcomes based on an analysis of millions of bits of disparate aggregate data, it's still left up to the cops themselves to interpret that data before deciding how to act in a given circumstance. It's a troubling thought, especially considering the nature of often very unpredictable, even random human behavior on both sides of the equation.

And while it may no longer exactly be a strictly legal issue at this point --  given we're living in an era in which we've simply come to accept that every post, every communication, every keystroke is being monitored and gobbled by not only federal agencies but private corporations as well -- there's still something more than a little hinky about the idea of the police accessing live social media conversations of anyone they like at the tap of a screen. As for the possibility of misinterpretation, incorrect profiling, and false arrests, Hitachi officials seem confident that armed with enough objective data, the police will act objectively and rationally.

The similarities between Hitachi Visualization and Dick's story (or more likely the Spielberg film version) are hardly coincidental, from the language and terminology Hitachi opted to use in their descriptions of the system to the fact it was first tested on a large scale in Washington before making the move to go national. But what the company's executives either failed to notice or conveniently ignored is the whole point of the original story (and the film): that perfect and infallible as it all seems, the inescapable intrusion of the human element leaves the system as corrupt as ever, one in which the innocent are still wrongly convicted and the guilty go free on a regular basis.

It should be noted that after eight years in development, six months in the field, and after a great deal of ballyhoo, aside from a few vague fictional scenarios Hitachi has yet to provide a single solid real-world example of an instance in which the Visualization system has in fact predicted a crime before it happened. Nor have they offered any guidelines or suggestions regarding how cops are supposed to react when the system tells them a certain crime will take place at a certain time. Do they make pre-emptive arrests? It's unclear.

So essentially what the new system is at heart is the next generation toy in the ever-expanding apparatus of State Control, this one with the added perk of being able (in theory, which is all that matters) to tell cops what you're about to do before you know yourself. Get enough people believing that and, well, you're all set.

Published February 26th, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.