Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Enforcement Droid 209

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The Enforcement Droid 209 (ED-209) is a stellar example of modern design. Not because it works, and not just because it fails so spetaculary badly, but because it fundamentaly fails as a replacement for human police.

The movie Robocop is a lot of things, but it excels as satire. And it does that job well in the scene where ED-209 malfunctions and kills an OCP executive.

For those who need a refresher, at the begining of the film (or close to it) ED-209 is demonstrated for "The Old Man", the head honcho at OCP. Jones brings out ED-209. It has chicken legs like the walkers from Return of the Jedi, a large dome head, and two machine guns in place of hands. It has no eyes and speaks with a deep typically robotic voice. Jones gives a random exec a gun and tells the exec to "use it in a threatening manner." At first the exec points it at Jones, but Jones sardonically tells the exec to point it at ED-209. The exec does, and ED-209 immediately springs into action, telling exec to drop the weapon or it'll shoot. ED-209 then starts a countdown. The guy drops the weapon immediately, but the countdown continues and ED-209 shoots the poor junior executive dead in an excessively brutal fashion. This leads to the scraping of the ED-209 and going ahead with the Robocop program.

In real life, the above would be a tragedy. It would also be a fiasco of design. The point of ED-209 is to replace human police officers. Even with the malfunction where ED-209 murders a junior executive, it fails as a cop replacement. Here's why:

First, ED-209 only springs into action when a gun is pointed at it, not another human. Human police officers, if they're doing their job right, generally care when someone points a gun at anyone. What kind of message is that? Point guns at anyone you want, just don't point it at robot with the giant guns. Also, what's the point caring about having a gun pointed at the heavily armed robot? Unless the armor's crap too.

Second, ED-209 gives the guy time put the gun down. O.k. Good. But what happens when ED-209 isn't malfunctioning? It has no hands! It can't handcuff a crook. I suppose it could keep threaten ing the crook with violence, but that's just wrong. (Though keeping with the theme of the movie.) Also, ED-209 could have a human handcuff the crook and take him or her in, but then ED-209 isn't replacing the cops, it's supplementing them. Not exactly what they want.

Third, as demonstrated later in the movie, it can't climb stairs. That's just a bad idea.

Frankly, I doubt it's very fast. A car could probably out run it. I suspect it's turning radius is pretty bad as well. But that's just speculation.

It's not often that good production design = poor real world design. Usually the artistic licence is invoked to justify such disparities. Here, the poor real world design is the whole point.

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