It looks like Beyoncé is in trouble over her Super Bowl halftime show, which some folks took to be an attack on law enforcement officers.
I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, so I don’t have an informed opinion about Queen Bey’s performance. But this latest dust-up about police and their alleged mistreatment of minorities does bring up an interesting idea that never seems to get as much attention as it deserves. To wit: Why has there been such meager technological advancement over the years in the area of nonlethal weapons?
Actually, I think I sort of know the answer, and I’ll get to that in just a moment. But allow me to suggest that if some Elon Musk-type genius inventor out there really wanted to create something that would change the world for the better, he might want to focus his attention on giving law enforcement professionals a truly new option for dealing with dangerous situations. This is an invention that would have more of an immediate practical impact on the real world than, say, trying to perfect electric cars. It would certainly be more effective at helping minorities than a silly #BlackLivesMatter hashtag campaign.
In fact, it seems to me that if you’re an engineering type who’s REALLY committed to social justice activism, this might be the single best way for you to use your skills to effect positive change.
Here is the problem in a nutshell: Assuming you believe law enforcement is a necessary part of society — not everybody does, but the ones who think that way are mostly idiots — then officers are often called into potentially dangerous situations where they are operating with limited information. Unlike average citizens, who usually have the option of withdrawing, law enforcement officers have an affirmative duty to confront ambiguous-but-possibly-dangerous situations head on in order to ensure the safety of the general public.
But police officers are not soldiers. Their commanders cannot just establish free-fire zones where the troops have very wide discretion to shoot anyone or anything that might even hint at a threat. This can put officers in a very stressful situation; since they have an obligation to try, if possible, to resolve problems with the minimal amount of force, they may have only a split second to decide if a situation is dangerous enough to require a lethal response. Is that guy reaching into his coat for his wallet — or is he reaching for a gun?
Furthermore, police are not psychic. They do not have perfect understanding of the capabilities and intentions of all parties they come in contact with. They might have special training which gives them a higher degree of awareness than the average citizen — an officer might recognize certain gang tattoos, and might notice the profile of a gun hidden under a person’s clothes, information which can help in assessing how dangerous a situation might be and how to adjust their response accordingly. But ambiguity and confusion are unavoidable. Unfortunately, in the U.S. and in many other countries, disadvantaged minorities end up bearing the brunt of the mistakes. (It’s beyond the scope of this post to try and divvy up the blame for this; for our purposes, let’s just stipulate that this is an unfortunate fact and move on to the topic at hand.)
A useful tool to have in such situations would be a portable device that could instantaneously immobilize a person until the cops can get a better handle on the situation. Something like one of those Star Trek phasers “set to stun” would be ideal. (I’m far from the first person to have this insight, by the way, but I’d like to expand on the theme a little bit here.)
In theory, of course, Tasers and various electric stun guns are supposed to provide just such a capability. In practice, of course, these devices have their own share of issues. People with health issues can be killed by stun guns. They’re not as easy to aim or as accurate as firearms. Some people, particularly people under the influence of drugs, can be seemingly immune to the powerful electric shocks delivered by these devices.
Unfortunately, the best, most reliable, most readily portable instrument capable of instantly stopping someone is a well-placed bullet — a technology which was more or less perfected in the 19th century. This is a curious fact. The modern law enforcement officer goes into the field armed with an array of high-tech tools, but his primary offensive tool remains a device that wouldn’t be out of place in the horse-and-buggy era. Can you imagine highway patrolmen puttering around in Model Ts? Or FBI agents conducting all their communications via telegram?
An engineer might look at this state of affairs and say it’s proof of a robust, efficient design. Spoons have used the same design for centuries, after all, with no need for improvement. And that’s a fair point, as far as it goes. But it also assumes that we can’t build something better using the technology we have today — or at least something that is better for certain situations. For example, we still rely on the humble wheel for the vast majority of our transportation needs, but airplanes — a much more advanced technology — are still useful enough for many tasks to justify their much greater cost and complexity.
Obviously, the development of an “immobilizer” device would face a range of technical hurdles. The hurdles are so great that I have no idea where one would even start. The most obvious approach is the one used by existing stun guns: Try to deliver an electric shock that can override a person’s nervous system. But stun guns, as I’ve mentioned, have serious limitations. Since I know nothing of the technical requirements for delivering a sufficient jolt of electricity and I lack a deep understanding of human anatomy, it isn’t clear to me if these limitations are inherent in this entire approach, or if a more refined design might be able to overcome these limitations. Perhaps the Tasers we have today are really the nonlethal equivalent of smoothbore muskets — they are a crude but effective demonstration of the basic concept, but they don’t give a sense of the depth of possibilities for the technology.
Or maybe electric stun guns are a dead end. Other possible approaches might be directed energy weapons — such as Raytheon’s Active Denial System — or some kind of Spider-Man like glue gun, such as the “sticky foam” guns the U.S. Marines reportedly tested in Somalia back in the 90s. Again, these devices wouldn’t be very useful in their current forms, but they might point to potential avenues for exploration.
(My personal suggestion: Some kind of breathable, immobilizing foam — you could douse a perp with it, and it would instantly harden upon exposure to air, preventing movement. But it would still permit the free flow of oxygen, meaning even if the perp’s entire face were covered, normal exhalation and inhalation would still be possible.)
The ultimate goal would be to produce something capable of replacing a handgun in roughly 90 percent of the situations where a lawman needs to pull a weapon. This device would need to be easily portable, extremely reliable, highly accurate over a useful distance, able to function well under a very wide range of environmental conditions, and would need to be capable of instantly stopping virtually any person, regardless of age, strength, health, or mental state. And it would need to do so without causing death or serious injury.
Is such a device just beyond our current technical capabilities? Maybe, but there are reasons to doubt that. One thing to consider is that weapons design tends to be extremely conservative and tradition-bound, meaning talented outsiders who can look at problems with a fresh set of eyes can often make major strides where industry veterans have reached a dead end. The most significant advance in handgun design since World War II was the brainchild of a 52-year-old engineer with no experience in firearms.
It’s also worth considering the sort of person who goes into weapons design — and the sort of person who doesn’t. The sort of guy or gal who pursues a career in any sort of weapons design probably accepts without question the philosophical assumptions behind the entire concept of “weapons.” Such a person is unlikely to agree with Lao Tzu that weapons are inherently “tools of ill omen,” and thus might lack the requisite imagination to question some of the deepest assumptions of weapon design. They might have trouble fully appreciating the transformative potential of nonlethal weapons, much as old school computer programmers back in the 1970s who were raised on Fortran had a lot of trouble grasping the potential for GUIs. It might be that it requires a hippie-dippy visionary outsider like the late Steve Jobs to be able to make the kind of leaps that this task would require.
The “hippie-dippy visionary” I’m thinking of would almost certainly be more interested in developing something like, I don’t know, organic solar panels or some such nonsense. He probably hates guns and won’t let his kids play with military toys. He would also probably be very wary — with good reason — about how a truly effective nonlethal weapon could be abused by authorities.
But this hippie visionary might be the only guy with the skill and imagination to get the idea to work.
To encourage him to open his mind to the possibility, I’d point out that every invention, if it’s successful enough, carries the risk of being misused for terrible ends. But one must always weigh that against the good they can potentially do. And a good nonlethal option for front-line law enforcement officers would do a great deal of good, indeed.
Also: Successful creators can sometimes use their own success to strike a blow for sanity. Andrew Carnegie used his immense fortune to build libraries, and the world’s most noteworthy recognition for peacemakers was brought to us courtesy of the man who invented dynamite — who was personally horrified by the wicked tasks to which his technology was later applied.
Well, I’m certainly not the person who could ever make this happen. So I’m throwing the idea out there, free of charge, to anybody who wants to take up the challenge. If you do build it find great success, just be sure to give me a little bit of credit. And if you want to throw me a modest financial reward — say a $1 million “inspiration fee” — I wouldn’t turn it down.