Thursday 6 February 2014

ROBOCOP – the future of ‘justice’?

Are you robophobic? 

If so, then don’t go and see the newest incarnation of RoboCop, which as a reboot of the Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 ‘new bad future’ sci-fi film, portrays a bionical manborg taking on the criminal element of Detroit, USA.

Directed by Jose Padilha, the film provides an update to the cyborg concept by combining human and machine to create a new law enforcement product. The new and improved RoboCop (complete with one human hand, visible face and updated robotic wardrobe) is charged with stemming the tide of crime and corruption in Detroit.  

It is the year 2028 and multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of robot technology. Their drones are winning American wars around the globe and now they want to bring this technology to the home front. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a loving husband, father and good cop, but he is critically injured by a planted carbomb. OmniCorp then utilizes their remarkable robotic technology to save Alex's life, and they outfit him with the Robocop body and software, which gives him enhanced strength along with instant computing information in his brain. 

As the movie progresses we quickly see the outworking of the blurred boundary between humans and computers with the underlying question: When will a human become a computer and a computer become human?

Although this consistent sci-fi paradigm of unease surrounding the relationship of humans and technology is intriguing, what interests me more is the implications of integrating robotics into law enforcement. What does it say about our contemporary systems of justice that we envisage our future as needing high-tech tinmen to provide justice? 

If you watch the trailer (click here), you can see the pervading message that the only solution to a criminal justice crisis, is NOT human. Indeed, Alex Murphy as RoboCop is touted in the trailer as the ‘future of American justice’ to provide support to a new dispassionate justice ‘system’. 

And what is even more fascinating is that, by indicating the human elements of instinct, fear and compassion as inevitable interference with ‘the system’, the film again alludes to the underlying premise that non-human actors devoid of emotion and passion, are the only vessels capable of providing true justice. 

I am looking forward to seeing the film to see how it actually treats the tension between robotising the human, and humanising the robot, as ways of achieving the never quite satiated public desire for ‘justice’.

If you see this film, feel free to let me know your thoughts of the vision of ‘justice’ that is played with and presented. 


  1. Intriguing ideas Cass. Without spoiling the movie for anyone the human element is always essential.. no matter how much 'tweaking' to become more machine like / robotic / attached to the system he becomes his humanity is a strong underlying force not only for him but for the honest police force around him....

  2. I look forward to having a chance to see this modern remake of RoboCop. I predict it will portray the same underlying issues as the timeless 'Bladerunner': The blurring of the line between the human and inhuman, relations between the human and inhuman, the risk and reward of using androids as slaves, etc.

    "The never quite satiated public desire for justice" could not be more accurate. For the longest time scholars have considered the justice system to be a concept that can never be perfected regardless of jurisdiction. This is why this concept of 'emotionless justice' is believable in a fictional sense in the first place. Hopefully we do not follow course in real life, although it would not surprise me if we were to get there.

  3. As a huge fan of the original, I've not been keen to see the update-- but I've also been surprised that reviews of the film have been better than I would have expected. So I may end up seeing it. There's definitely another paper here, though! Also: Are you guys getting the FOX television series "Almost Human" down there?

    1. Wow Steven - just watched that clip of 'Almost Human' and it looks great! No - it is not currently available in Aus! I love JJ Abrams too. I'll have to keep a wach out for it starting here. Thanks for the heads up! C

  4. “What does it say about our contemporary systems of justice that we envisage our future as needing high-tech tinmen to provide justice?”

    This movie as a whole answers this question in a few different ways. Throughout the film, the debate rages over whether Congress should repeal the anti-robots-as-law-enforcers bill central to the storyline. The passionately pro-robot television presenter Pat Novak tries to appeal to the public using the fallibility of humans as his tool. Novak quite succinctly presents the pro-robot argument:

    “Even the police – the men and women who swore to keep us safe – they can be bribed. They can be bought. Machines, however, are corruption free. Americans could be living in a country where law enforcement is not only efficient, but incorruptible.”

    Moreover, as mentioned in the original blog post, the human elements of fear, instinct and compassion are presented by OmniCorp to simply be undesirable ‘interferences’ in the justice system. Essentially, the film is making a point about the general nature of human beings: we are imperfect. As such, at all levels of the justice system, our imperfections make us susceptible to mistakes and corruption. The film would have us believe that humans are the reason that the justice system is failing to contain crime in Detroit.

    Robocop and robots as police are the ‘perfect’ alternatives. Indeed, Robocop manages to independently reduce crime in Detroit by 80% – but at what cost?

    Robocop essentially removes the justice system from the equation entirely. He acts as judge, jury and executioner. Essentially, he plays a role more akin to a judge in an inquisitorial system than as the police officer he is. The difference is that he is unstoppable, and seemingly authorised to commit whatever acts he pleases in the name of brutal ‘justice’. The computer element within him collates evidence and acts on it independently of the rest of the police department – even independently of Alex Murphy himself – and the courts play no role because the OmniCorp brand of justice demands that ‘threats’ – when identified – are eliminated immediately.

    This, too, says a lot about our contemporary justice system. As Senator Dreyfus states in the film, “a machine does not know what it feels like to be human – we need people who understand right from wrong”. Indeed, although perhaps not widely represented in pop culture, our justice system is in many respects inherently ‘human’. Police exercise discretion on a daily basis, as do prosecutors and judges. The human conscience plays an undeniably powerful part in this.

    The justice system should be largely dispassionate, and indeed it is. However, to have a justice system as totally disconnected from the real world as the OmniCorp brand of justice would only be a step backward. Humans are certainly fallible, but even the most hardened criminals deserve their day in court. If a policeman or a prosecutor makes a mistake, or if a jury gets it ‘wrong’, then so be it. People aren’t perfect and so neither is our justice system, but it is effective.

  5. RoboCop seems to be playing on the ever present theme of Man playing God. This theme has been played out over and over in films such as Bladerunner, iRobot and Frankenstein. Man once again flexes his muscles as the Creator and once again it does not appear to end well.

    This theme brings me to consider this apparent need for an infallible means of law enforcement. As you have showed Cass, it appears that the film is leaning towards the idea that the only effective means for a human criminal justice crisis is not human at all. Therefore the imperfect man turns to an artificial intelligence in order to achieve a level of infallibility that a man never could. But I cannot help to see a trend through texts with this underlying premiss that these infallible law enforcement agents are not so infallible at all. Human emotions and reasoning abilities often appear to undermine the control of the creators over the artificial beings or the beings become too intelligent for humanities own good.

    I see a reflection of this sentiment in our current justice system where nothing is infallible. The courts, legislation, parliament and police are all subject to review, appeal, checks and balances. All these imperfect institutions are created by the imperfect man. As are the creations given to us by OmniCorp, United States Robotics and the Tyrell Corporation. The underlying issue is that an imperfect man cannot create perfection be it a Robot or a Justice system.

    I can’t help but to reflect that until the perfect human race exists man will not have the capacity to create a perfect justice system and if such a race does one day come to form, will we really need a justice system at all?

  6. I think the question of whether we "need" robots to achieve justice in today's society is really quite interesting, seeing as a lot of modern law enforcement (particularly in areas like anti-terrorism) already relies so heavily on the artificial. I think that the Robocop of 1987 is more closely aligned with the concerns of a cold-war society about technological advancements in both crime and law enforcement, given that they had already endured decades of pervasive surveillance and a constant nexus of criminal and nuclear anxiety. In today's society, these concerned are predominantly related to terrorism, and the future of AI, as computers have begun to dominate many aspects of our lives, and the threat of AI essentially taking over the fundamental roles of society traditionally filled by humans.

    So, robotic policeman? Or half-human cyborg Robocops? Or just super-suits which essentially enhance human perception and capability artifically?

    I think there are bound to be problems with whatever the future holds. Robotic policemen will raise questions of the importance of compassion in policing, especially if these "robots" aren't in some way dictated to by a man at a computer miles away. How would a robot handle delicate situations where a small breach of the law may have been necessary for a persons safety? How effective will "future programming be" at comprehending the delicate, human, nuances of a potentially "illegal, but necessary" situation?

    Half-human policemen will raise similar concerns, especially if the cyborg seems to be more machine than human, Robocop may have human tendancies and compassions, allowing his human side to dictate his actions, but who is to say that Robocop mk II or III will follow his example, rather than embracing his super-human capabilities and positioning himself as an example of Man playing God and creating a prodigal son. Of course, I doubt that a policeman robot will be the first to raise these questions in these scenarios, as there will obviously be a need for advanced medical research to create a robocop esque cyborg... which will probably turn up somewhere before in some random policeman who happened to get a bit hurt.

    I think the last scenario is the most-likely to combat the needs of an "advanced" policeforce. Some kind of advanced suit, which essentially performs tasks that human's cant - I mean... it doesnt even have to be a suit. What if its just a few gadgets? Or advanced "google glass" that allows policemen to track people in real time? Would we as a society have a problem with enhancing the perceptive capability of our policeforce? Or their physical strength? Would we trust our police force with an increase of power and ability when they are fallible human beings too?

    I think its a really interesting question, as really it doesn't seem like its necessary, at least not yet. Maybe in a few decades there will be a demand for infallible, or at least enhanced law enforcement, but I think we're coping okay so far today - especially considering that realistically a lot of our police work is assisted by computers already.

  7. I think the sense of dehumanization of law and justice that comes out of these sorts of ideas is really interesting, and also somewhat concerning. There is also an element of letting machines do the dirty work of justice – the way that Robocop is the judge/ jury/executioner takes the work out of finding justice, the pressure is no longer on the justice system o find the truth and justice for cases, since technology now steps in and does the work. Essentially it takes the responsibility of justice from society. Technology often works in absolutes, in the same way criminal law is sometimes seen, either someone is guilty or innocent, something is legal or illegal.

    In the world of Robocop there is a pursuit of perfect form of justice in an imperfect world. Robots can only work in the realm of posited, black and white law, but as history has proven, law needs to change to meet the changing standards of society.

    This reminds me of something that Dr Crofts said in her presentation about bringing the mess back in to the law. Clinical law can be impartial, but it might not achieve justice in the sense that people feel justice has been met. Law is a human invention – its created and enforced by humans and is therefore imperfect. But recognizing the imperfect nature of law is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the law to be reformed, and to in some way change, it encourages lawmakers to continue to strive to create a legal system that is just and to address inequalities within the law.

    RoboCop and films like it, where technology is more advanced than today always raises interesting issues about whether the law has had to change to keep up with these developments. Privacy Laws come straight to mind as we see robotic policing, from the HUD in the trailer, I wonder how much information systems like RoboCops can access. I wonder whether the film talks about property rights over RoboCops body? Much the same way that Captain America or even the adamantium in Wolverine’s body has been discussed. Where do the propriety rights lie?