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Motorola veteran sees tech at core of public safety

When the Boston bombings occurred three years ago, police commissioner Ed Davis told Motorola Solutions CTO Paul Steinberg that there was almost no voice signal available except for the Motorola network that kept police and medical crews in touch. While consumer cellular networks struggled to cope with a spike in demand, Motorola’s devices and private network meant critical communications were maintained.

It’s an irony that’s not lost of Steinberg, a Chicago-based 24-year, Moto veteran who often talks up the next generation of digital technology and its role in helping to fight crime, natural disasters and acts of terror. In an emergency, to cite the old BT advertisement, it’s good to talk. Or, as Steinberg puts it, “Voice communications is still the gold standard.”

It’s a dangerous world out there and Steinberg does not demur from the general consensus that the next big challenges won’t be kinetic but cyber.

“Cyber terrorism and our dependence on computers and technology could stop an entire economy. [Power and] industrial control systems are probably the biggest risk now.”

 

Venturing out

The defence against these threats depends on “layering your capabilities”, he says, and at Motorola Solutions that’s also the strategy. The company still develops its own R&D with bases in the US and Israel and but Steinberg also plays a leading role in Motorola Solutions Venture Capital which makes investments in public safety related technology startups and was founded in 1999.

“They come and go pretty rapidly but we have one of the oldest ones,” Steinberg says when I suggest that pretty well every company in Silicon Valley seems to double up as a VC these days.

“If we did it all [research and development] internally it would take years. You can go so much faster. The key is to learn as fast as you can, as cheaply as you can, and then iterate.”

Steinberg is particularly interested in using technology that automatically helps officers in crisis moments and says observation of human behaviour can trump even verbatim responses as to what works. “They can’t tell you but if you watch them, they’ll show you,” he says.

Motorola is helping to drive a series of research projects that can sometimes resemble some sort of futuristic state with aspects of Judge Dredd.  These include weapon identification via head-mounted cameras that automatically turn on, drones that issue speeding tickets, gunshot audio detection and Google Glass-style eyewear providing augmented reality identification and information on persons of interest. These make for thrilling demos but Steinberg concedes that mainstream deployment remains a little way out for reasons stretching from privacy laws to cost and practicalities.

“They’re not blue sky and they’re not mainstream,” he says. “With head-mounted displays it’s still early days and officers are still very cautious about anything occluding their vision.” But on the other hand he adds it’s already pretty easy for a device or wearable to tell an officer that he or she has forgotten to take their weapon or another piece of kit out on the beat.

If some of the gizmos remain in niche use, the arrival of new data sources and modern data querying capacity is very real today. “Predictive policing”, where crimes can be anticipated based on available records and trends, is sure to be an even hotter area in coming years. Similarly, real-time data such as traffic movements or social media reports of suspicious acts can provide a valuable live feed.

The general theme is consistent: Motorola is seeking to build “technology that has the officer’s back”, but Steinberg is no wide-eyed techno-evangelist and he understands that there can be a conundrum that “the more you need the technology, the more you struggle to command the technology”. False positives that waste time, demonising people because they live in a neighbourhood with high gun-crime levels – these are the sorts of technical and moral mazes that will take time to work out.

Steinberg expects the next decade to see some big changes, however, from the Hollywood-style stuff to the ability for officers to show drivers video evidence they have broken a law so they don’t contest the charge. It cuts both ways, he says with both police and citizens benefiting from technology that will help reshape to some of the most challenging situations we will face.

 

Also read:

Motorola sees wearables, AR and more in public safety future

Forensics expert fights crime with digital weapons

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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