From self-driving cars to Zoomtube: What would transport look like in Judge Dredd’s Mega City One?

Mega City One. Judge Dredd® is a registered trademark. Copyright © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Images used with permission of the copyright holder.

It’s the year 2102AD. Something has been found underneath Sector 301 of Mega City One. Judge Dredd is on his way to the scene. He’s thundering in from above on his heavy-duty Lawmaster motorbike. Visible below are shiny Zoomtubes, weaving their way through the monolithic habitation blocks and unbroken urban blight. They pulsate with computer-controlled convoys of fast-moving automated vehicles, speeding along inside a vacuum.

As many as 800m people live in Mega City One. It’s crowded. Convulsing. Choking. Breaking under its own weight. The civilian population is mostly illiterate, since artificial intelligence removed the need for most types of work. But they are restless, always on the move and often in trouble. This is why street judges like Dredd exist. To dispatch instant justice, to restore order by force – they are judge, jury and frequently executioner: they are the law.

Mega City One has a secret. It is built on top of abandoned and ruined “under cities”, from before the nuclear war of 2070AD. Dredd is descending into this dark undercroft now. Spotlights have been set up around a crime scene, but this is not what attracts Dredd’s attention. No. His eyes are drawn to an old Brutalist building from 1970AD. A set of rusty steel roller-shutter doors have been ripped from their moorings. Inside, there appears to be a brand new, petrol-burning vehicle. These were mass-produced in the 20th century, but now they are incredibly rare and expensive antiques.

Why it is here is unclear. It sits inside a laboratory of some kind, connected to ancient silicon-based computers. A transport professor from the City Central De-Education Establishment is already sitting inside the vehicle, looking around in bemused wonderment. “They were trying to steal this” she says. “It’s a completely intact driving simulator laboratory from the 21st century”.

Dredd pauses for a moment. “What is driving?” he asks.

The professor chuckles. “About 100 years ago, people would sit here and turn this large wheel with their hands to send the vehicle left or right. At the same time, they’d press these pedals here with their feet, to start and stop”. Brushing some cobwebs away from the top of the instrument panel, the professor goes on: “Sounds dangerous doesn’t it. And in some ways it was. It’s astonishing how something so primitive could be used by so many people.”

Old school: a driving simulator laboratory from the 21st century. Image: Guy Walker/Heriot Watt University/author provided.

She reaches into the passenger seat and picks up a thick, dusty folder containing hundreds of sheets of paper. “People used to think driving was a simple activity, but these documents prove otherwise. Look, here: it’s a task analysis – an antiquated method of research based on hundreds of hours of observations, looking at how people used to control these things. Did you know, people had to perform more than 3,000 individual tasks, at the correct time, in the correct sequence, in order to avoid crashing? Amazing. In fact, people had quite a lot of trouble adapting to automatic vehicles.”

Dredd regards her incredulously. “I know!” she says, smiling, as she shifts herself out of the driver’s seat and walks to the other side of the laboratory. Dredd follows, intrigued. Part of the roof has collapsed and water is leaking in, dripping on piles of old paper books and broken coffee mugs with the crest of a once famous university printed on them. The professor crouches down and peels away a thin sheaf of water-damaged paper from the pile.

“This will take years to go through, but look at all these: these old scientific papers offer a fascinating insight into how people in the 21st century were thinking about vehicle automation. They categorised it into six levels, from zero automation –- a bit like that petrol-burning vehicle over there, where the driver does everything – right through to full automation, like we have now.”

“What’s interesting are the levels in between. For years, their Artificial Intelligence systems weren’t sophisticated enough for full automation in all conditions. So the vehicle controlled some of the functions, such as automatic cruising on the highway – their equivalent of a Meg-Way. But the human driver had to do the rest. And judging by all these other ancient texts lying here, it seems that caused no end of trouble.”

“Really?” Dredd replies, with growing curiosity. “I mean, it just seems obvious that AI is a much more efficient way to pilot our vehicles – especially when a computer controls the whole traffic system. Why would that ever be a problem?”

“You’ll like this then,” the professor says, as she bends down to pick up another text. “They called it the study of ‘human factors’. Look: this describes some of the experiments performed in this laboratory a century ago. It says that when a crude safety technology called ‘anti-lock brakes’ was introduced in 1985AD, people in experiments drove faster and braked harder, because the new technology made them feel safer.”

Ancient history: the laboratory’s control room. Image: Guy Walker/Heriot Watt University/author provided.

“And this one here. This is an early study into night-vision from 2000AD. Far from making things safer, the tests showed that it actually made drivers speed up, even in thick fog. And this one here, look, it shows that as cars got more technically advanced, their drivers became more isolated from the road and began to lose touch with what was happening around them. It seems as if old-fashioned drivers actually needed some of that technological primitiveness to remain 'situationally aware’. So up to a certain point, having things to do actually helped them to drive better.”

This was beginning to make sense now: AI hadn’t replaced human drivers overnight. It had taken years, decades, for automated transport systems such as the Zoomtube, Robochairs, and Mo-pads to be developed and refined. This slowness to adapt was why you could so often hear Mega City One’s chief transport engineer bemoaning the fact the city would be an engineer’s paradise, were it not for the humans. Dredd bent down to pick up a red book from out of the puddle at his feet.

“Ah yes, Human Factors in Automotive Engineering, I’ve been searching for a copy of that text for a while,” the professor says. “In the back they try to imagine what driving would be like today in the 22nd century. It’s rather quaint.” Turning to face him, the professor looks Dredd straight in the eye: “Still, I wonder what the inhabitants of this ancient city would have thought of Mega City One?”

“They would have learnt a lot from our advanced technology,” Dredd replies, with confidence.

Mega City One: paradise for who? Judge Dredd® is a registered trademark. Copyright © 2017 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Images used with permission of the copyright holder.

Turning away a little wistfully, the professor says to herself, quietly: “I’m not so sure. Mega City One is like a giant machine. The technology rules. It is a logical extension of the ways we humans used to think about cities and transport, back when this building was constructed.” She waves her hand vaguely at the decaying concrete structure they’re standing in.

“But maybe we could have taken a different direction. A more human-centred direction. Instead of building a city which is optimised for computers, to make things more efficient, we could have used this powerful technology to meet human needs. Like the need for identity, freedom and participation. Heck, people used to enjoy driving some of these old relics...”

The ConversationIn the end, the professor has the last word: “Don’t you see, the harder we drive the technology, the more we seek to make things logical and machine-like, the more we get all sorts of unexpected problems, which we humans still need to fix. That’s the problem with all these dystopian comic book cities of the future.”

Guy Walker is associate professor in human factors at Heriot-Watt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.