The Surprising A.I. Roots of Early 20th Century Criminal Interrogation

interrogation room

Imagine for a moment that it’s 1927 and that you’re a suspect in a major crime. When you head to your local police station for questioning, you’re placed in a cold, dark interrogation room—all alone. So you sit down and wait. And wait. And wait. Suddenly, you find yourself face to face with not a police officer, but a skeleton with glowing red eyes. Impossibly, it speaks to you, asking questions about the crime you’re suspected of committing.

Sound far-fetched? Inventor Helene Adelaide Shelby didn’t think so when she patented her confession-inducing skeleton in 1927. Equipped with red eyes, a megaphone, and a primitive recording device, this early robot was to be operated by an unseen examiner. Draped in gauzy fabric and hidden behind a black curtain in an interrogation room, the skeleton was meant to appear apparition-like, its ghostly visage intended to scare confessions from guilty parties.


Modern Technology in the Interrogation Room

In an age defined by Spiritualists and mediums, this paranormal police partner wasn’t as outlandish as it might seem today. While Shelby’s invention seems like it’s straight out of a campy science fiction movie, the use of artificial intelligence in police interrogations shouldn’t seem like too much of a leap. After all, we live in an IoT world of smart homes, robotic vacuums, and self-driving cars. While Shelby’s invention raises concerns about coerced confessions, who’s to say that there wouldn’t be benefits to a more modern version? After all, we’re already employing technology in the interrogation room in a somewhat similar way to what Shelby imagined.

At the time, retracted criminal confessions were all the more troublesome because there was no way to record them like we do today. Shelby envisioned a recording system housed in the skeleton that captured audio and video of a suspect’s confession that could later be submitted into evidence. These days, systems like CaseCracker Slate and CaseCracker Onyx serve exactly that purpose, aiding human interrogators and the prosecution while also protecting police officers and the public.

In this age of rapid technological advancement, it’s worth considering the benefits of both existing and new technologies in the interrogation room. Perhaps sophisticated A.I. systems could leave us less susceptible to human error or allow us to better tap into the criminal mind. While it may seem crazy to consider a future android partner, it can be fun to imagine the ways in which this kind of technology could improve our work lives.

Read more about Helene Adelaide Shelby’s invention here.