Rule Of Humans By Software Not Transparent
Humans have been trusting in algorithms for a long time; should our government officials do the same?
In July, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Sharon Reardon considered whether to hold Lamonte Mims, a 19-year-old accused of violating his probation, in jail. One piece of evidence before her: the output of algorithms known as PSA that scored the risk that Mims, who had previously been convicted of burglary, would commit a violent crime or skip court. Based on that result, another algorithm recommended that Mims could safely be released, and Reardon let him go. Five days later, police say, he robbed and murdered a 71-year old man.
On Monday, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office said staffers using the tool had erroneously failed to enter Mims’ prior jail term. Had they done so, PSA would have recommended he be held, not released.
Mims’ case highlights how governments increasingly rely on mathematical formulas to inform decisions about criminal justice, child welfare, education and other arenas. Yet it’s often hard or impossible for citizens to see how these algorithms work and are being used.
Of course, I'd argue that rule by my fellow humans was not so transparent, either. If the government software was on github maybe we could rest easier.
Science fiction fans of course have been preparing themselves for rule by artificial intelligence for a long time. For example, in The Return of the Archons (1967), Star Trek fans recall Landru, the computer system that ran an entire planet, telling everyone what to do:
Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall the Central Computer, the artificially intelligent computer that ruled the city in City and the Stars:
The Council ruled Diaspar, but the Council itself could be overridden by a superior power - the all-but-infinite intellect of the Central Computer. It was difficult not to think of the Central Computer as a living entity, localized in a single spot, though actually it was the sum total of all of the machines in Diaspar. Even if it was not alive in the biological sense, it certainly possessed at least as much awareness and self-consciousness as a human being.
I should also mention the Vulcan 3 computer from Philip K. Dick's 1960 novel Vulcan's Hammer:
"But who would watch the Guardians? How could we be sure this supranational body would be free of the hate and bias, the animal passions that had set man against man throughout the centuries?
...There was one answer. For years we had been using computers, giant constructs put together by the labor and talent of hundreds of trained experts, built to exact standards. Machines were free of the poisoning bias of self-interest and feeling that gnawed at man; they were capable of performing the objective calculations that for man would remain only an ideal, never a reality."
Finally, the earliest example that I can think of is the government machine from Mechanocracy, a 1932 short story by Miles J. Breuer:
"After all my explaining," Quentin said, "haven't you realized that the Government is merely a huge machine, made of metal and rubber and glass and run by electricity and light and heat?"
"But—but how can machinery govern the world?"
"Better than human beings can. Even your business men in Democratia use machines to help them run their businesses; their offices are full of automatic machines for managing a business, time-clocks, adding-machines, bookkeeping machines, cash-registers, dictaphones—no end of them. The Government Machine is not essentially different. Merely a little more automatic and a little more complex."
"And are all the people willing to be governed by a machine?" It was all amazingly strange to Jack.
"They cannot conceive of anything else," Quentin explained. "For three hundred years they have grown up in it. They are intensely loyal to it, because it not merely governs them as you understand the wrord govern ; it takes care of them as a mother takes care of children."
(Read more about Miles Breuer's government machine)
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