Minority Report

In the following, I have left aside criticism of Minority Report as a film and I am focusing more heavily on the way it represents technology half a century into the future. In this, I am following the approach used by Josh Calder on his Web site http://futuristmovies.com.

I have cast aside his rating system (it seems fairly subjective to me), but agree with the general idea. I’ve invited my students from the Masters in Informatics capstone seminar, who also saw the film, to comment on my review if they like. They have already done something similar with several science fiction novels.

I’ll move from the most obvious and visible technologies in the film to those that are used more or less as scenery.

Human-Computer Interfaces

It is hard to take a serious look at the technologies of the movie without at least touching on the central theme: the idea that the precognitions of a group of possibly genetic mutants could be used to effectively stop crime before it happenes. Without exploring some of the deep questions of determinism Phil Dick introduces along this plot line, we can locate on the current frontier some attempts that take “extra-sensory perception” into consideration, at least as far as it is helpful to them. The CIA, for example, has supported “remote viewing” experiments, police detectives sometimes make use of psychics to help to locate missing persons (though the extent and efficacy of such use is probably fairly limited), and a workgroup at Princeton has demonstrated small but detectable anomalous human-machine interactions. So I will not dismiss the possibility of some as-yet undiscovered sensory system and the ability of technology (drugs, genetics) to accentuate this sense, but it seems a fairly unlikely development.

What about visualizing these events electronically and processing them by computer? The idea that direct transmission and reception of visual images is possible remains a mainstay of SF literature and films, and universally this seems to be via “squids,” or electrodes placed on the head. Such electrodes would likely be focused on the back of the head, where the visual image is, at least to a very limited extent, mapped spatially to electrical stimulation in the region. The idea then, that 50 years of intensive brain research and imaging could yield a system that imperfectly suggests snippets of imagined visuals is far-fetched, but certainly possible.

It also seems plausible that reconstructing images to place back into the brain is a much more daunting task, and the film provides several examples of displays of generated or recorded imagery. Most of these revolve around a holographic projection of one sort or another. Something of the holy grail for display designers, this seems a plausible development, but there is a bit of strangeness. When I was at Santa Fe Institute, they did use the windows overlooking the city as white boards, but generally, there is a reason that displays are relatively opaque: they are easier to see. Since most of what Cruise’s character was doing seemed pretty reminiscent of today’s image and video processing software, it seems as though a curved (opaque) 2-D screen would have been just as useful, though perhaps not as “futuristic-looking.” Likewise, the whole balls-of-grained-wood thing seemed more than a little far-fetched (though I suppose there are interesting analogues with the present-day use of hand-made etchings for currency).

The use of the “sneaker net” to transfer images from one computer to the other in the computing center seemed quaintly anachronistic. I would expect that networking would make such an operation (and indeed many of the physical records) unnecessary. But then, folks have been saying the same thing for some time now, and I’m sure I have a 3.5″ floppy buried somewhere on my desk.

The idea that humans will use computers to accelerate and guide data mining is a no-brainer. Humans have a pattern-matching and information discovery ability that will be difficult to replicate, but that may benefit greatly from more intuitively designed databases and expert systems.

It was not clear how the images in the virtual reality center were generated, but the operation of such an establishment, and the idea that it would be used mainly for visceral entertainment (pornography, violence) seems to be a pretty likely extrapolation. The fidelity of the holographic images (of his son and wife) were so low that I cannot imagine anyone would choose them over a similarly large flat image, though this may be more an issue of representing such technologies in a two-dimensional film.


Especially striking were the large-scale billboards on city buildings. This sort of massive advertising appears regularly in SF films (think of the dirigible in Bladerunner) and seems like a reasonable extrapolation from the displays in Times Square or Shibuya. As Cruise moves through the streets and subway station, the advertisements vie for his attention by calling out his name. This seems not only plausible, but achievable in a much shorter period than five decades.

Directed audio beams and an increasing rush to personalize “experiences” seem to indicate that this is the direction such advertising might take. Perhaps the more invasive aspect of such advertising is not indicated here–that is, such advertising is likely to know much more than just your name, and is likely to key appeals to your own interests and background. It seems unlikely that advertisements will shout at you (unless you actually seem like a good prospect for Slim Jims or hearing aids).

Disposable animated display technology, like that displayed on the cereal box, seems likely within the term indicated. Particularly with the increase of research into materials and biotech, simple displays could be produced with relatively little expense. The audio is already here, but interestingly not widely used. Given the cheap technology used in “singing greeting cards” you would expect them to be used in packaging. Why haven’t they been? Consumer backlash means that such technologies must creep, if they are acceptable at all. Who knows, in 50 years a talking cereal box may not be as annoying, but Cruise’s character certainly seems to think it is.


Advertising and access to buildings, among other things, is based on scanning users’ retinas. This seems a bit quaint. Near-term technologies should make DNA based identification much more usable, and such identifications can be made automatically using the “plume” of DNA-carrying material we constantly slough off. A skin transplant (or DNA transplant) is a lot more difficult than eye-replacement.

But how about that? Could eyes be transplanted? It seems a reasonable possibility. Even more extreme, it may be possible to “grow” replacement eyes at some point in the future, obviating the need for a donor. If such a transplant is available in 25 years in a hospital, there is no reason to believe a trained MD couldn’t do a similar surgery on the black market, for enough money.


Just a quick note on the weapons found in the film: non-lethal sonic (so it seems) directed side-arms seem plausible, even in the far nearer term . The use of cattle prods by the police seems like a fairly good bet, since batons haven’t gone out of fashion for the last few centuries. Firearms remain the norm, it seems, though one wonders if they will remain unchanged in design. In five decades will we have moved on to an alternative like one similar to that proposed by Metal Storm?


What happened to the SUVs? I mean, I like the design and all, but the idea that Lexus would make a vehicle that small seems fairly thin. What I found especially interesting was the degree to which the infrastructure had been developed. I was able to easily accept the idea that malls and subways would be very recognizable, but I found the idea that the D.C. beltway would easily run up and down buildings to be more than a little fanciful. While the technologies of private vehicles are likely to advance quickly over the next five decades, the time and coordination required for such a massive change in infrastructure seems overwhelming.

Jet packs seem to run into real power/weight constraints, no matter the efficiency. I like the idea, but I don’t see them happening any time soon. Why, if jet packs were available, did they rappel from ropes from the heli-hover-craft thing?

I don’t think there was enough of an indication of what power the flying vehicle to make much of a judgment. It seems to be a revolutionary rather than evolutionary replacement of the helicopter. Or maybe it just escaped from the Star Wars series (Mr. Fet, your spacecraft is parked illegally.)


An entirely robotic assembly plant? Works for me.


His cell phone was huge. Why not use a phone embedded in your tooth.


Loved the bioengineered plants. Not particularly my area, but these seemed to be, again, outside of the horizon of predictability. I am curious how far we could get from existing carnivorous plants.

OK, that petered out at the end. Hopefully some of you can provide a bit more detail and criticism.

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One Comment

  1. toymeika
    Posted 6/25/2002 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    I would like to say I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the idea of personalized advertisement, what they did seems very plausible. Just like one gets mail because of somthing they buy especially using a credit card it would not be hard for a machine to remember what you have purchased on a store credit card. There is so much talk about security that some cards are offering the option of photos, so for a machine to recognize you by face is possible. Unlike Alex i do like the idea of the small lexuses. The people seemed comfotable and the travel time anywhere was short so the need for a bigger car may not exist in the future. As far as the videos, like those of his son, i tink those will be great, flat screens are nice but its much more fun to see somthing in 3D the way it was when you taped it, it seems more realistic and he was using it as a way to remeber the good days. It is alot easier and more personal to remeber a person you love in 3D its almost as if they are there with you instead of on a TV screen. I did not like the idea of the plants , that would just be to creepy, and it doesnt seem like it could happen anytime soon. If I want something in my house that alive I would rather have a pet. I personally dont feel the police will ever rely only on psychics to determine the bad guys, and using people as machines is not right. One part of the movie that I believe can come true before the year 2054 was they way the house responded to Tom Cruise when he walked in. I think Laura wrot a paper on electronic houses. That is simular to what was going on in the movie, lights and such were controlled by his voice and that was one of the most logical things in the movie while at the same time futuristic. Overall the technology was very interesting, some of it I am sure will happen while others really dont need to like the cops flying around, or cars climbing buildings, but it was all pretty cool.


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