RoboCop 1.0

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The title character of the 1987 movie RoboCop was "part man," "part machine," and "all cop." The concept was popular enough to spawn two sequels, a TV series, and a 2014 reboot film that promised, "Crime has a new enemy."

As this 1924 image of a hypothetical "Radio Police Automaton" attests, the dream of a perfectly impervious and unemotional peacekeeping force is an old one. "Such a machine would seem to be exceedingly valuable to disperse mobs," enthused Hugo Gernsback in Science and Invention magazine. "The arms are provided with rotating discs which carry lead balls on flexible leads. These act as police clubs in action.…Bullets do not affect them and if equipped with a twenty to forty H.P. engine, they will be well nigh irresistible."

In the wake of highly publicized cases of police violence in Missouri, Ohio, New York, and elsewhere, it's perhaps comforting to think that law and order can be outsourced to machines. But as the RoboCop franchise reminds us, human emotion, error, avarice, and empathy will always get in the way. Alas, even with radio-controlled automatons keeping the peace, somebody somewhere will still be calling the shots.

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.com and Reason TV.

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