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Chapter 13 of Turing’s Nightmares concerns itself with issues of crime and punishment. Our current system of criminal justice has evolved over thousands of years. Like everything else about modern life, it is based on a set of assumptions. While accurate DNA testing (and other modern technologies) have profoundly impacted the criminal justice system, super-intelligence and ubiquitous sensors and computing could well have even more profound impacts.

We often talk of punishment as being what is “deserved” for the crime. But we cannot change the past. It seems highly unlikely that even a super-intelligent computer system will be able to change the past. The real reason for punishment is to change to future. In Medieval Europe, a person who stole bread might well be hanged in the town square. One reason for meting out punishment in a formal system, then as well as now, is to prevent informal and personal retribution which could easily spiral out of control and destroy the very fabric of society. A second rationale is the prevention of future crime by the punished person. If they are hanged, they cannot commit that (or any other) crime. The reason for hanging people publicly was to discourage others from committing similar crimes.

Today’s society may appear slightly more “merciful” in that first time offenders for some crimes may get off with a warning. Even for repeated or serious crimes, the burden of proof is on the prosecution and a person is deemed “innocent until proven guilty” under US law. I see three reasons for this bias. First, there is often a paucity of data about what happened. Eye witness accounts still count for a lot, but studies suggest that eye witnesses are often quite unreliable and that their “memory” for events is clouded by how questions are framed. For instance, studies by Elizabeth Loftus and others demonstrate that people shown a car crash on film and asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they bumped into each other will estimate a much slower speed than if asked how fast the cars were going when they crashed into each other. Computers, sensors, and video surveillance are becoming more and more prevalent. At some point, juries, if they still exist, may well be watching crimes as recorded, not reconstructing them from scanty evidence.

A second reason for assuming evidence is the impact of bias. This is also why there is a jury of twelve people and why potential jurors can be dismissed ahead of time “for cause.” If crimes are judged, not by a jury of peers, but by a super-intelligent computer system, it might be assumed that such systems will not have the same kinds of biases as human judges and juries. (Of course, that assumption is not necessarily valid and is a theme reflected in many chapters of Turing’s Nightmares), and hence the topic of other blog posts.

A third reason for showing “mercy” and making conviction difficult is that predicting future human behavior is difficult. Advances in psychological modeling already make it possible to predict behavior much better than we could a few decades ago, under very controlled conditions. But we can easily imagine that a super-intelligent system may be able to predict with a fair degree of accuracy whether a person who committed a crime in the past will commit one in the future.

In chapter 13, the convicted criminal is given “one last chance” to show that they are teachable. The reader may well question whether a “test” is a valid part of criminal justice. This has often been the case in the not so distant past. Many of those earlier “trials by fire” were based on superstition, but today, we humans can and have designed tests that predict future behavior to a limited degree. Tests help determine whether someone is granted admission to a college, medical school, law school, or business school. Often the tests are only moderately predictive. For instance, the SAT test only correlates with college performance about .4 which means it predicts a mere 16% of the variance. From the standpoint of the individual, the score is not really much use. From the standpoint of the college administration however, 16% can make the test very worthwhile. It may well be the case that a super-intelligent computer system could do a much better job of constructing a test to determine whether a criminal is likely to commit other crimes.

One could imagine that if a computer can predict human behavior that well, then it should be able to “cure” any hardened criminal. However, even a super-intelligent computer will presumably not be able to defy the laws of physics. It will not be able to position the planet Jupiter safely in orbit a quarter million miles from earth in order to allow us to view a spectacular night sky. Since people form closed systems of thought, it may be equally impossible to cure everyone of criminal behavior, even for super-intelligent systems. People maintain false belief systems in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the “trial by fire” that Brain faces is essentially a test to see whether he is or is not open to change based on evidence. Sadly, he is not.

Another theme of chapter 13 is that Brain’s trial by fire is televised. This is hardly far-fetched. Not only are (normal) trials televised today; so-called “reality TV shows” put people in all sorts of difficult situations. What might be perceived as a high level of cruelty in having people watch Brain fail his test is already present in much of what is available on commercial television. At least in the case of the hypothetical trial of Brain, there is a societal benefit in that it could reduce the chances for others to follow in Brain’s footsteps.

We only see hints of Brain’s crime, which apparently involves elder fraud. As people are capable of living longer, and as overwhelming greed has moved from the “sin” to the “virtue” column in modern American society, we can expect elder fraud to increase as well, at least for a time. With increasing surveillance, however, we might eventually see an end to it.

Of course, the name “Brain” was chosen because, in a sense, our own intelligence as a species — our own brain — is being put on trial. Are we capable of adapting quickly enough to prevent ourselves from being the cause of our own demise? And, just as the character Brain is too “closed” to make the necessary adaptations to stay alive, despite the evidence he is presented with, so too does humanity at large seem to be making the same kinds of mistakes over and over (prejudice, war, rabble-rousing, blaming others, assigning power to those with money, funneling the most money to those whose only “talent” consists of controlling the flow of money and power, etc.) We seem to have gained some degree of insight, but meanwhile, have developed numerous types of extremely effective weapons: biological, chemical, and atomic. Will super-intelligence be another such weapon? Or will it be instead, used in the service of preventing us from destroying each other?

Link to chapter 13 in this blog

Turing’s Nightmares (print version on Amazon)