Originally posted on N2 Technology on March 26, 2021.
Almost 20 years since its release, Spielberg’s Minority Report eerily predicts our current state of modern life and technology.
The tale unfolds in a 2054 dystopian Washington DC PreCrime unit that seeks to prevent murders before they happen. For a film released in 2002, where Nokia 6100s were huge and texting was in its infancy, Apple released the second generation of the iPod, and Justin Timberlake broke up with Britney Spears, watching today might be a Millennials first time viewing. Having to endure a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie made in the early 2000s might seem arduous, but Minority Report stands the test of time.
Positioned as a dark commentary on life post-9/11, Minority Report overtly confronts the growing collective anxiety surrounding an American government invading privacy in the name of national security - bringing to life an imagined future so realistic it could have been released this year.
“The fact that all of these bleak real-world ideas exist in what is, ostensibly, a summer popcorn movie featuring one of the planet's biggest movie stars remains remarkable. 20 years later, Minority Report is both a terrific blockbuster and endlessly thought-provoking. It still feels ahead of its time” - Syfy.
What Minority Report Got Right in 2021
After E.T., Spielberg decided to consult experts to ensure more accurate scientific research goes into his films. In 1999, he invited fifteen professionals convened by leading consulting firm, The Global Business Network, who specialised in helping organisations adapt and grow in an increasingly uncertain and volatile world. Chaired by Peter Schwartz and Stewart Brand, this three-day “think tank” intended to create a plausible “future reality,” opposed to a traditional science-fiction film.
From autonomous cars to multi-touch screens, we’ve investigated the technologies predicted in 2002 that have since come to life in 2021...
In the film, Spielberg envisions the PreCogs predicting the future via brain-to-computer technology. Whilst this version is not (yet) possible today, the technology has been applied to control other machines. Some devices can receive electrical signals from the skin and use them to power a mechanical limb - this is life-changing for individuals who are paralysed or have lost a limb.
In an attempt to replicate PreCogs capabilities, a neuroscientist at Brown University used an fMRI machine to examine the brain activity of three individuals whilst dreaming. Once enough information was collected, a computer model successfully correlated specific brain activities with certain objects in a dream. Although we’re not yet able to obtain actual HD footage from dreams, the reality is that we’re not far away. If we were to discover mutated humans or PreCogs in our population, with enough political and financial backing, the developmental cycle wouldn’t take much time to complete.
Cruise decodes crime scenes through a seamless computer interface. He’s able to manipulate the screen using control gloves similar to VR gloves already available for purchase on the Internet. The same applies to motion capping technology that was once limited to large movie or video game studio’s that could afford it. Today, if you have an iPhone or touchscreen at all, chances are you’ll be using this technology to read this article.
Instead of using a VR or AR headset, Cruise uses a large piece of smart-glass that displays everything he needs to see, all at once. Whilst appearing out of our realm just now, some similar capabilities already exist. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner possesses smart-tint windows, with adoption taking place on 777s and some Airbus planes. This basic technology has been around for years - even appearing in limited form in Mercedes-Benz sunroofs.
Manufacturers in the automobile industry are also testing the potential of smart-glass windows. At the 2020 CES event, Gentex announced several new features, including; variable visor bands, self-darkening side glass, and HUD combiners/heads-up displays that use pop-ups or stationary combiners instead of the windshield. This means that GPS-information could be visible in front of the driver, instead of on a separate screen. Smart helmets are already available for purchase for motorcyclists, and General Motors are working on designs to entertain passengers.
AR displays information in the air around the user that is usually produced through a wearable lens. Whilst the Google Glasses experienced some setbacks, Microsoft has unveiled a more functional hololens, which presents an entirely new way for humans to interact with computers. Applicable in science, surgery, medicine and much more.
When the police in Minority Report administer an arrest, they scan the perpetrators' eyes for identification. In the movie, Cruise tries to hide from retina scanning by enduring a dangerous, black-market eye transplant. Whilst this kind of surgery is not yet available, patients can instead have their cornea replaced.
The problem with retina scanning is that it's invasive and time-consuming compared to fingerprinting or facial and iris recognition software. However, the exponential improvement of camera technology has allowed these features to be incorporated and easy-to-use every day in the modern iPhone.
When Cruise returns home, he watches homemade videos of his family that seemingly float in the air in 2D. In 2012, Coachella supposedly projected a “hologram” of Tupac performing on stage, but, like the movie, he also presented in 2D, which doesn’t technically classify as a hologram. However, there have been advances in the hologram space, where actual 3D forms have been created using high-powered lasers, but they are dangerous as they can burn through skin. Therefore, Japanese researchers are experimenting with safer forms of holographic technology to create free-floating holograms that react to the human touch. In Australia, another company has developed a functional laser hologram machine that creates 3D holograms that float in the dark - without the use of special glasses or headsets.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of this future world film is the depiction of automated cars and smart-roads. In 2021, out of the six levels of AVs, we’ve obtained level 1 (driver assistance), level 2 (partial automation), and companies like Tesla have broken into level 3 (conditional automation). However, Elon Musk has ambitiously claimed that by the end of this year, Tesla will be fully self-driving, hitting level 5.
But what makes Minority Report so interesting is that instead of focussing on the AI in the AVs themselves, Spielberg focuses more on the infrastructure. He investigates the possibilities by making the roads, rather than the cars, smarter. By removing all the ancillary aspects, like pedestrians, driveways, non-motorised and parked vehicles, the environment becomes more controlled and predictable for the cars to drive on - making it a more realistic endeavour.
There was also an indication of fully-robotic assembly centres for the cars. In 2018, a Japanese company in the e-commerce sector brought this vision to life and intends to automate all warehouses across the US.
In the last decade, companies like Facebook and Google have witnessed exponential growth in profits through highly-effective, highly-personalised advertising. Before these conglomerates, adverts were primarily streamed through televisions, loosely targeting big groups of audiences who watched specific shows. Online, companies react differently by keeping track of users interests and demographics to deliver purpose-built ads.
In Minority Report, personalised advertising remains prominent throughout - specifically when Cruise walks into the GAP store authenticating him with his newly replaced eyeballs, then proceeding to offer him items that he might like. We are now seeing this technology in action across various brands today. The Nike store in New York City integrates its app into the in-store experience, so they can automatically offer customers products based on previous purchases, browsing history and in their size.
Cruise communicates with his superiors whilst decoding crimes via a tablet-style video chat - perhaps the most prevalent prediction in today’s Covid environment!
Predictive policing and thermal mapping
The narrative pervading the film of predictive policing remains topical today. Various tools from drones, thermal mapping, AI, big data, ubiquitous surveillance and improvements in detection technology have helped expose crimes from credit card fraud, spam emails and abnormal behaviour that suggests malicious intent.
In 2020, when demonstrations over police brutality were rife in Baltimore, local police used the Cessna T207’s battlefield-developed HawkEye II Wide Area Surveillance System cameras to record people’s movements. Labelled the ‘Spy Plane’, the police have stated that the camera’s use is to locate witnesses, suspects and vehicles related to serious “target crimes” such as homicides and armed robberies. But where does the safety end, and invasion of privacy begin?
Read more: The Big AI Con: Are You Really AI?
Inspiring the future
Minority Report forecasted a future that has since come to life 30 years ahead of predictions. Arguably, however, the forward-thinking technology inspired - rather than predicted - our future; at the 2007 unveiling of the then Microsoft Surface, a representative stated that the technology "will feel like Minority Report." Then in 2010, according to the Fast Company, "IBM's new system feels almost directly inspired by Minority Report - similar to the PreCogs, it uses predictive analytics to forecast criminal hot spots." And in 2012, Al Guido told HP that he wanted something “more like the sci-fi touchscreens in Minority Report," exclaiming that "they have all these touchscreens, and people are moving stuff, and I just felt that, that is where [the future] is heading!"
Although Spielberg presents a menacing undertone via the movie’s narrative, the imagination and predictive analysis of future technologies remain incredible to this day. Perhaps this is because the intention was to create a story based around future technologies – rather than fitting the technology into the storyline. The only thing that Spielberg and his expert team miscalculated was the phenomenal pace of technology deployment. The ground-breaking, world-changing tech we see passing through incubators and attracting Venture Capital investors’ interest every day has concertinaed Spielberg’s fifty-two-year time frame into twenty – even ten years took us to the edge of imagination!