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Ever get a speeding ticket that you thought was “silly”? I certainly have. On one occasion, when I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, I drove by a police car parked in a gas station. It was a 35 mph zone. I looked over at the police car and looked down to check my speed. Thirty-five mph. No problem. Or, so I thought. I drove on and noticed that a few seconds later, the police officer turned his car on to the same road and began following me perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 mile behind me. He quickly zoomed up and turned on his flashing light to pull me over. He claimed he had followed me and I was going 50 mph. I was going 35. I kept checking because I saw the police car in my mirror. Now, it is quite possible that the police car was traveling 50, because he caught up with me very quickly. I explained this to no avail.

The University of Michigan at that time in the late 60’s was pretty liberal but was situated in a fairly conservative, some might say “redneck”, area of Michigan. There were many clashes between students and police. I am pretty certain that the only reason I got a ticket was that I was young and sporting a beard and therefore “must be” a liberal anti-war protester. I got the ticket because of bias.

Many years later, in 1988, I was driving north from New York to Boston on Interstate 84. This particular section of road is three lanes on both sides. It was a nice clear day and the pavement was dry as well as being dead straight with no hills. The shoulders and margins near the shoulders were clear. The speed limit was 55 mph but I was going 70. Given the state of my car, the conditions and the extremely sparse traffic, as well as my own mental and physical state, I felt perfectly safe driving 70. I got a ticket. In this case, I really was breaking the law. Technically. But I still felt it was a bit unjustified. There was no way that even a deer or rabbit, let alone a runaway child could come out of hiding and get to the highway without my seeing them in time to slow down, stop, or avoid them. Years earlier I had been on a similar stretch of road in Eastern Montana and at that time there was no speed limit. Still, rules are rules. At least for now.

“The Death of Rules and Standards” by Anthony J. Casey and Anthony Niblett suggests that advances in artificial intelligence may someday soon replace rules and standards with “micro-directives” tuned to the specifics of time and circumstance which will provide the benefits of rules without the cost of either. “…we suggest…a larger trend toward context specific laws that can adapt to any situation.” This is an interesting thesis and exploring it helps shine some light on what AI likely can and cannot do as well as making us question why we humans have categories and rules at all. Perhaps AI systems could replace human bias and general laws that seem to impose unnecessary restrictions in particular circumstances.

The first quibble with their argument is that no computer, however powerful, could possibly cover all situations. Taken literally, this would require a complete and accurate theory of physics as well as human behavior as well as a knowledge of the position and state of every particle in the universe. Not even post-singularity AI will likely be able to accomplish this. I hedge with the word “likely” because it is theoretically possible that a sufficiently smart AI will uncover some “hidden pattern” that shows that our universe which seems so vast and random can in fact be predicted in detail by a small set of laws that do not depend on details. In this fantasy future, there is no “true” randomness or chaos or butterfly effect.

Fantasies aside, the first issue that must be dealt with for micro-directives to be reasonable would be to have a good set of “equivalence classes” and/or to partition away differences that do not make a difference. The position of the moons of Jupiter shouldn’t make any difference as to whether a speeding ticket should be given or whether a killing is justified. Spatial proximity alone allows us as humans to greatly diminish the number of factors that need to be considered in deciding whether or not a give action is required, permissible, poor, or illegal. If I had gone to court about the speeding ticket on I-84, I might have mentioned the conditions of the roadway and its surroundings immediately ahead. I would not have mentioned anything whatever about the weather or road conditions anywhere else on the planet as being relevant to the safety of the situation. (Notice though, that it did seem reasonable to me, and possibly to you, to mention that very similar conditions many years earlier in Montana gave rise to no speed limit at all.) This gives us a hint that what is relevant or not relevant to a given situation is non-trivially determined. In fact, the “energy crisis” of the early 70’s gave rise to the National Maximum Speed Law as part of the 1974 Federal Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. This enacted, among other things, a federal law limiting the speed limit to 55 mph. A New York Times article by Robert A. Hamilton cites a study done of compliance on Connecticut Interstates in 1988 showing that 85% of the drivers violated the 55 mph speed limit!

So,not only would I not received a ticket in Montana in 1972 for driving under similar conditions;  I also would not have gotten a ticket on that same exact stretch of highway for going 70 in 1972 or in 1996. And, in the year I actually got that ticket, 85% of the drivers were also breaking the speed limit. The impetus for the 1974 law was that it was supposed to reduce demand for oil; however, advocates were quick to point out that it should also improve safety. Despite several studies on both of these factors, it is still unclear how much, if any, oil was actually saved and it is also unclear what the impact on safety was. It seems logical that slower speeds should save lives. However, people may go out of their way to get to an Interstate if they can drive much faster on it. So some traffic during the 55 limit would stay on less safe rural roads. In addition, falling asleep while driving is not recommended. Driving a long trip at 70 gets you off the road earlier and perhaps before dusk while driving at 55 will keep you on the road longer and possibly in the dark. In addition, lowering the speed limit, to the extent there is any compliance does not just impact driving; it could also impact productivity. Time spent on the road is (hopefully) not time working for most people. One reason it is difficult to measure empirically the impact of slower speeds on safety is that other things were happening as well. Cars have had a number of features to make them safer over time and seat belt usage has gone up as well. They have also become more fuel efficient. Computers, even very “smart” computers are not “magic.” They cannot completely differentiate cause and effect from naturally occurring data. For that, humans or computers have to do expensive, costly, and ethically problematic field experiments.

Of course, what is true about something as simple as enforcing speed limits is equally or more problematic in other areas where one might be tempted to utilize micro-directives in place of laws. Sticking to speeding laws, micro-directives could “adjust” to conditions and avoid biases based on gender, race, and age, but they could also take into account many more factors. Should the allowable speed, for instance, be based on income? (After all a person making $250K per year is losing more money by driving more slowly than one making $25K/year). How about the reaction time of the driver? How about whether or not they are listening to the radio? As I drive, I don’t like using cruise control. I change my speed continually depending on the amount of traffic, whether or not someone in the nearby area appears to be driving erratically, how much visibility I have, how closely someone is following me and how close I have to be to the car in front and so on. Should all of these be taken into account in deciding whether or not to give a ticket? Is it “fair” for someone with extremely good vision and reaction times to be allowed to drive faster than someone with moderate vision and slow reaction times? How would people react to any such personalized micro-directives?

While the speed ticket situation is complex and could be fraught with emotion, what about other cases such as abortion? Some people feel that abortion should never be legal under any circumstances and others feel it is always the woman’s choice. Many people, however, feel that it is only justified under certain circumstances. But what are those circumstances in detail? And, even if the AI system takes into account 1000 variables to reach a “wise” decision, how would the rules and decisions be communicated?

Would an AI system be able to communicate in such a way as to personalize the manner of presentation for the specific person in the specific circumstances to warn them that they are about to break a micro-directive? In order to be “fair”, one could argue that the system should be equally able to prevent everyone from breaking a micro-directive. But some people are more unpredictable than others. What if, in order to make it so person A is 98% likely to follow the micro-directive, the AI system presents a soundtrack of a screaming child but in order to make person B 98% likely to follow the micro-directive, it only whispers a warning. Now, person B ignores the micro-directive and speeds (which would happen according to the premise 2% of the time). Wouldn’t person B, now be likely to object that if they had had the same warning, they would have not ignored the micro-directive? Conversely, person A might be so disconcerted by the warning that they end up in an accident.

Anyway, there is certainly no argument that our current system of using human judgement is prone to various kinds of conscious and unconscious biases. In addition, it also seems to be the case that any system of general laws ends up punishing people for what is actually “reasonable” behavior under the circumstances and ends up letting people off Scott-free when they do despicable things which are technically legal (absurdly rich people and corporations paying zero taxes comes to mind). Will driverless cars be followed by judge-less and jury-less courts?

Turing’s Nightmares