Breaking Down News: I Spy Eye in the Sky

Drones are being trained to control violent crowds and how a former Indian president did the Right thing

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: June 9, 2018 12:43:44 am
Former president Pranab Mukherjee speaks during the closing ceremony of ‘Tritiya Varsha Sangh Shiksha Varg’, an (RSS) event to mark the conclusion of a three-year training camp for Swayamsevaks, in Nagpur on Thursday. (PTI Photo) 

These are strange days. The RSS meet graced by former President Pranab Mukherjee has received live coverage on a scale generally reserved for the Independence Day parade. And its proceedings, including what looked suspiciously like a martial art imported from an eastern power, was aired across channels. The members of India’s other cultural organisations must be quite envious. And Mukherjee’s speech is provoking enough thought (and wild surmise) to sustain TV debate for a week. The strangest news story from last week reported that Israel and Myanmar had signed an education pact for programmes about xenophobia and ‘Holocaust and its lessons’. Unfortunately, it remained confined to the pages of Haaretz, and may not have come to your notice. In north India, you could have been forgiven for imagining that this week’s strangest story is the hysteria over Rajinikanth’s Kaala, with fireworks and dancing in front of theatres, and cutouts being garlanded and offered milk. It is incomprehensible to people north of the Vindhyas.

But it wasn’t the strangest. The real thing was going on in Moscow. On Thursday, Vladimir Putin broke new ground in politics with a live TV intervention to address the everyday problems of his subjects. He was interactive and responsive in real time. When one Alexei called in from St Petersburg to complain about rising fuel prices, Putin immediately phoned the energy minister and got him to explain himself. This may not have solved Alexei’s problem, but it worked exactly like the weight on a pressure cooker, allowing him to let off some steam. Briefly, he may even have imagined that he was in control of his life.

The Kremlin said that the call-in programme was a means to gauge issues of public concern, but equally, it was a great device for Putin to appear to be on the side of the public and be seen calling ministers to account, and generally ordering the troops about on their behalf. Other world leaders are probably kicking themselves for not thinking of the stratagem first.

We have some tricks of our own. The weekend edition of India Today’s show To the Point was guest anchored by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, in a jacket and tie. The leading question: Is the united opposition a real challenge to Modi? It would have been fine if Patra hosted a show debating elephant conservation or the sex life of molluscs. But with this subject, despite his “solemn promise” to be impartial, he was both referee and centre forward by default. Three quarters of the panel consisted of his peers — spokespersons of the BJP, Congress and Samajwadi Party. Predictably, he was spouting party rhetoric in seconds. An anchor more partisan than Arnab Goswami was scarcely conceivable, but now one has sprung full-grown into the studios of India Today, by invitation.

Pakistan shows signs of going back to the bad old days. In mid-May, Geo TV went off the air in large parts of the country and the distribution of Dawn, the country’s oldest newspaper, was disrupted in parts of Baluchistan and Sindh, and in cantonments everywhere. The government protested its innocence, and Reporters Sans Frontieres alleged that cable operators had taken the hint, following unofficial communications from the military. The irritant, apparently, was airtime given to Nawaz Sharif.

Now, the media community in Pakistan has had to spring to the defence of journalist and activist Gul Bukhari, who was abducted in the Lahore cantonment while on the way to the late night show Waqt. NDTV, which covered the story most extensively in India, reported that she had been taken away by men in plainclothes, while others in uniform stood guard. She was restored to her family following an outcry on social media. Again, the irritant may have been her support for Nawaz Sharif, and criticism of military interventions in politics.

News of an automated crowd surveillance experiment, which will apparently be put through its paces in India soon, has not been widely reported here, though a detailed story appeared in the technology press. The Verge reports that scientists in the UK and India are using a combination of drone cameras and deep learning to detect violent behaviour in crowds. The system, named Eye in the Sky, was trained to identify aggressive postures, but it appears that false positives rise sharply if there are too many people in the frame. It is to be tried out in the wild in relatively peaceful settings — Technozion and Spring Spree, at NIT Warangal. It could indeed save lives in riots and terrorism situations. Equally, if it retains data, it would become a panopticon with a bird’s eye view, and false positives could destroy lives. The authors could have chosen a less intimidating name, too. Starring Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky was a 2015 thriller about the ethics of using drones.

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