Before he started filming Minority Report, Steven Spielberg invited 15 experts to a three-day think tank on the future of technology.

What they came up with was nicknamed the “2054 bible”. Almost 20 years later it is still influencing design and technology all around the world.

You’ve probably heard people talk about “Minority Report ” screens. This is what they looked like in the film:


Source: Youflavio

(Well, that’s actually someone mimicking what they looked like in the film. I couldn’t find a public licence still from the actual film.)

And it isn’t just future design that Minority Report saw coming. Back in 2010 the film’s visual effects man, Jeff Boortz, had this to say about how its advertising was depicted:

“The whole idea, from a point of view, was that the advertisements would recognize you – not only recognize you, but recognize your state of mind. It’s the kind of stuff that’s going on now with digital set-top boxes and the Internet.”

Kind of eerie, given the current Facebook fiasco that Boortz saw all this coming.

However, it isn’t the design influences or advertising prophesies I’m going to talk about today. It’s the film’s premise – pre-crime. Because it too has now become a reality.

Pre-crime is now a real offence in China. No, really.

Okay, so to backtrack a bit for anyone who hasn’t seen Minority Report. It’s set in 2050, when a set of three triplets are born who can see the future.

More specifically, they can see crime before it happens. These triplets are called “precogs” as in pre-cognition, as in psychic.

In the film, the murder rate is zero, because the precogs can see it coming and the police go and arrest the perpetrator before they carry out the act.

It’s a flawless system. The precogs are never wrong. Until they are…

In the film, Tom Cruise plays a man on the run from the future crime police. Ironically, Cruise isn’t just any man though, he’s the police’s of pre-crime. And, of course, he believes he is innocent.

It’s sort of like a futuristic The Fugitive. Sort of.

It’s based – as most good sci-fi films are – on a book. The book was written by Philip K Dick (who most famously wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Which was turned into Blade Runner). In this case, I haven’t read the book. But I’ve heard it’s good.

The pre-crime element is a favourite of dystopian thinkers everywhere. The idea of being arrested for a crime you never actually committed is a powerful and disturbing one. And in China it’s a lot more than just an idea, it’s been put into practice.

Facial recognition, automatic fines and public shaming for jaywalking

Every couple of years the same story about China’s “social credit score” pops up.

It’s supposed to be like a credit score, but for everything. So if you have a bad credit score, you wouldn’t be allowed to use the fastest trains or fly out of the country. Or get a good job, or a loan, or buy a house.

The thing is, every time it does pop up, it gets dispelled. People write it off as anti-China propaganda. And I tended to fall into that camp too. But this week, I’ve seen quite a few of the more reputable news sources publish stories on it.

It turns out China’s social credit score is very real. And it’s getting more and more advanced.

As the South China Morning Post published on Tuesday:

With the help of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, jaywalkers will not only be publicly named and shamed, they will be notified of their wrongdoing via instant messaging – along with the fine.

Intellifusion, a Shenzhen-based AI firm that provides technology to the city’s police to display the faces of jaywalkers on large LED screens at intersections, is now talking with local mobile phone carriers and social media platforms such as WeChat and Sina Weibo to develop a system where offenders will receive personal text messages as soon as they violate the rules, according to Wang Jun, the company’s director of marketing solutions.

You can watch a video on it about halfway down the article’s webpage. Click the picture below to follow the link.

It sounds almost innocuous, until you get further down the article and read this (emphasis mine):

Taking it a step further, in March the traffic police launched a webpage which displays photos, names and partial ID numbers of jaywalkers.

These measures have effectively reduced the number of repeat offenders, according to Wang.

The next step – informing the errant pedestrians by text or Weibo instant messaging – could have the added benefit of eliminating the cost of erecting large LED screens across the cities, he said.

The system will also be able to register how many times a pedestrian has violated traffic rules in the city and once this number reaches a certain level, it will affect the offender’s social credit score which in turn may limit their ability to take out loans from banks, Wang said.

And then when you dig a little deeper into the latest social credit stories, you can find things like this from The Telegraph two weeks ago:

China’s “social credit” system has already seen over 12 million people slapped with domestic travel bans as punishment for bad behaviour. 

Nine million Chinese have been banned from buying domestic flights, and three million more from buying business class tickets in early trials of the scheme, under which citizens are rated on their compliance with social norms and rules. 

Behaviour that triggered the bans varied from obstructing footpaths with electric bikes to failing to pay fines.

The police at certain train stations wear smart glasses that scan the faces of the people they look at to see if their social credit score is too low to travel.

And the system China is using to scan its population is called… Skynet

That’s the same name as the AI superintelligence in Terminator that becomes self-aware and starts World War Three.

You couldn’t make it up!

Here’s an extract from an article on this new Skynet system by Global Times China:

A facial recognition system, which can scan China’s population in a second, is being used in 16 Chinese cities and provinces to help police crackdown on criminals and improve security.

By using motion facial recognition technology, the system, called “Sky Net,” can accurately identify people’s faces from different angles and lighting conditions, among others. The system is fast enough to scan China’s population in just one second, and it takes two seconds to scan the world’s population, Worker’s Daily reported over the weekend.

Speed does not affect the system’s accuracy. Its accuracy rate is up to 99.8 percent even if the person is in motion.

The system is being used in 16 provinces, cities and municipalities, Yuan Peijiang, one of the system’s developers, told the Worker’s Daily.

Surveillance cameras in the streets provide police with the location of suspects and missing people; and it follows people’s tracks, which may offer police more valuable information, Yuan said.

In the past two years, police arrested more than 2,000 fugitives with the help of Sky Net, the newspaper reported.

Now, admittedly, this is a report of a report. The original is in Chinese and my friend who can read Mandarin is somewhat ironically on holiday in China at the moment.

So I couldn’t ask him to verify it. But it has been reported by multiple reputable websites now. So there is a very strong chance it’s true.

I suppose the big question for people living in here in the UK is, how long until a system like this comes to us?

Will pre-crime and social credit scores be the price we have to pay for safer lives, and will it be worth it?

The answer for me, I think, is summed up in the Benjamin Franklin’s famous words that people love to quote, misquote and admonish people for misquoting:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor