Biosensors, Robots Replacing Human Guards


We've talked about wearable sensors that help people monitor their vital signs, or those of their babies. This week, we learn of monitoring devices that some believe will help reduce inmate suicide in prisons.

Suicide is a major problem in US prisons, accounting for 35% of deaths in local jails and 5.5% of deaths in state-run facilities in 2011, according to the US Department of Justice. The news site Ozy.com reported recently on an experimental GE monitor that uses Doppler radar to track movement in a given space -- an isolation cell, in this case. It can detect breathing patterns and even pulse rate and send alerts if they spike or fall out of the normal range.

New Scientist carried a story about this technology a few weeks ago, saying it tests at 86% accuracy. GE plans to put it through several more rounds of testing before deploying it in correctional facilities.

Rent-a-robot
It turns out that biosensors and 3D cameras are already doing the work of human security guards in South Korean prisons and even in UK office settings, at least at the prototype stage. Mashable profiles the BOB robotic security guard in this video.

In both of these cases, the robot's 3D imaging creates a clear understanding of where objects and people are, how fast they're moving, and whether anything is happening outside normal parameters. Human guards have to intervene once they receive an alert, but the automated devices seem ready to handle routine patrols.

Dehumanized
A South Korean official interviewed by Reuters said the goal of robot guards is "to decrease the workload of correctional officers." This is similar to the reasoning behind GE's cell monitor. Ordinarily, prisoners considered at high risk for suicide are held in isolation and checked every 15 minutes by human personnel -- a fairly effective but expensive process.

Social workers and other mental health professionals who work with the prison population don't see these developments as positive. I asked Abigail Strubel, a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master's degree in forensic psychology, about this story. Her take: "There's an overreliance on solitary confinement, which increases the risk of suicide dramatically. So, instead of reducing the number of people in solitary, they're making it harder for them to commit suicide once they're there."

Instead of relying on sensors, Strubel said, corrections facilities should invest in more guards, vocational training, and other rehabilitative programs. "Eyes on walls aren't going to lower reincarceration rates."

I think any technology that lowers suicide rates can't be a bad thing, per se, but I question the efficacy of robots in anything but a low-risk setting at this point. What do you think, members? Is the GE device a great application of sensor technology or another cost-saving measure that will marginalize prisoners even further? Share your thoughts below.

— Michael Steinhart, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook, Executive Editor, AllAnalytics.com

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Michael Steinhart, Contributing Editor

Michael Steinhart has been covering IT and business computing for 15 years, tracking the rising popularity of virtualization, unified fabric, high-performance computing, and cloud infrastructures. He is editor of The Enterprise Cloud Site, which won the Least Imaginative Site Name award in 2012, and he managed TheITPro.com, a community of IT professionals taking their first steps into cloud computing. From 2006 to 2012, Steinhart worked as an executive editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise, writing and managing research reports, whitepapers, case studies, magazine features, e-newsletters, blog posts, online videos, and podcasts. He also moderated and presented in dozens of webinars and virtual tradeshows. He got his start in IT journalism at CMP Media back in 1998, then moved to PC Magazine, managing the popular Solutions section and then covering business technology and consumer software. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications/journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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Re: Human Contact
  • 7/24/2014 10:12:14 AM
NO RATINGS

..

SaneIT writes


@Lyndon_Henry, I know that was sarcasm, but it as in 1984 it doesn't have to be "real" war either, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on obesity all work for this.  As long as you can tell people that monitoring their behavior is good for them you have an audience that won't say no.


 

Sarcasm? No, more like irony. War in the MidEast, drumbeats for war in eastern Europe, increasing flareups in eastern Asia/Pacific Rim ... 

Back here in the "Homeland", it seems to mean more shaving away of freedom and privacy for our "protection". And, unfortunately, the "dark side" of analytics and big data is being brought to bear to achieve this...

Oh, and let's not forget the "assault" being carried out by hordes of undocumented immigrant children from deep Central America...

I was fantasizing about a 2084 update to Orwell's book, but that's probably way too late; it's coming sooner than that...

 

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/15/2014 5:07:13 PM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon_Henry, I know that was sarcasm, but it as in 1984 it doesn't have to be "real" war either, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on obesity all work for this.  As long as you can tell people that monitoring their behavior is good for them you have an audience that won't say no.

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/15/2014 9:31:42 AM
NO RATINGS

@SaneIT -- I can imagine the temptation, though, of data sharing when the people's data that's shared don't even know the data is being gathered in the first place!

 

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/15/2014 9:22:29 AM
NO RATINGS

I know that I see this due to people that I talk to on a regular basis but I wonder how many people see this or have given it much thought.  Transparency has become a big thing in many government organizations but if no one is watching what does that really mean.  If an organization is collecting data I think they have a duty to be overly protective of it.

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/14/2014 8:32:25 AM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon, OK, Elysium is on my watch list now. Thanks! As for what humans do in an age when robots build robots... I shudder to think (and will wait for the trailer to determine whether I'll see the movie).

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/13/2014 11:44:21 AM
NO RATINGS

..

SaneIT writes


Of course it sounds a lot like 1984, but we all know that's coming one day, right? 


 

Well, I dunno that "1984" is all that inevitable. After all, we'd have to have a perpetual state of war, right?

Oh, wait...

 

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/13/2014 11:33:54 AM
NO RATINGS

..

Beth asks


... I haven't seen Elysium yet -- although I do like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. I can't decided if it's too over the top. Would you recommend it?


 

I'd definitely recommend it. Not the usual role for Jodie Foster, by the way.

Interesting dystopian view (lotsa those in movies and TV dramas these days). But I've got an even more dystopian vision ... I wouldn't have heavily exploited humans building robots ... robots will be building robots. What might the great "unwashed" impoverished 99% of humans be doing, when all conceivable work can be automated? Filmmakers need to suggest some scenarios...

Anyway, Elysium provides what I think is at least a hint of the kind of future that could result from current trends...

 

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/11/2014 1:16:54 PM
NO RATINGS

Lyndon, you know, I hadn't thought about the use of automatons from this perspective. I bet you're right in thinking that they'd lead to more antisocial behavior among those with the tendency (ahem, most of the prison population).

Separately, I haven't seen Elysium yet -- although I do like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. I can't decided if it's too over the top. Would you recommend it?

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/11/2014 1:12:26 PM
NO RATINGS

Savvy city politicos are great at twisting the law to their purposes, so I'd have to agree with your choice @SaneIT. I'd be especially concerned as time moves on from the initial project... and public scrutiny diminishes. I wouldn't be surprised to learn of behind-the-scenes negotiations and data-gathering projects that aren't as forthright with the details as they ought to be.

Re: Human Contact
  • 7/11/2014 7:40:33 AM
NO RATINGS

Knowing several people in law enforcement I have to go with anything at the local government level.  Technology at the city level seems to have a bit of give and take so that it can get funding.  That means people who probably shouldn't have access will be using it without the oversight that you would expect.  While those private companies probably mean well there is always the issue of security and who can be held responsible for data leaks and who inside that company might be misusing the system.  

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