Can Computers Decide what is Legal and Illegal?

Can Computers Decide what is Legal and Illegal?

Jacob Palme (Stockholm University, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-057-0.ch036


Humans are able to understand that rules must not be adhered to 100% all the time. There are special cases, where the rules should not be adhered to. Computers do not have this ability. A society where computers are judges will not be a nice place to live in. This chapter illustrates with practical examples why computers should not be judges.
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The main theme of this chapter is that one should be very careful with programming computers into becoming judges (Figure 1). The reader may react with the question: OK, we should not program computers into becoming judges. But why is this such a big issue? We could program computers to do lots of useful things, even if we don't make them into judges. Why write a chapter on why we should not make computers into judges, why is this such a big issue?

Figure 1.

Computer as judge, possible or not?

Well, if you think a little more, you will find out that it is extremely common that computers are some kind of judges. Not in the common case of judges who work in courts and make verdicts. But it is very common that rules about how humans should behave are written into computer programs, and that the programs are written in such a way that their users are forced to adhere to these rules. The people who design and write computer programs will in many cases be rule-makers. By the way they design the programs, they decide which rules are valid among people who use these programs. Computer programs are full of detailed rules about how the world should work.

  • Messages may have a limited length.

  • It may be illegal to include pictures in certain messages.

  • In order to use the software you have bought, you are forced to sign a checkbox saying that you agree to long, detailed “conditions of use”, which you have no option to negotiate in any way, and which probably are very unreasonable. If you do not check that box, the software you have bought will not work.

  • To perform a certain action in the administrative system at your workplace, you have to fill in long detailed forms with information, which makes the systems cumbersome to use, and which are not really necessary.

  • Requests for permission do not allow you to specify the reasons for your request in the way you would prefer.

  • Etc, etc.

Life is full of these minor or major obstacles posed by computer systems. They are, in fact, rules. They specify what you may do and not do. Often in ways which are cumbersome and unnecessary complex. Because the rule-makers, the designers of the software, want to impose their rules on you. Real life is full of such rules. But when the rules are written on chapter, you have the option of doing things in simpler ways. No one will usually check or require you to adhere to all rules, fully and in every detail.

A well-known method for work-force conflict is that everyone does everything exactly according to rules, making things much more time-consuming so that tasks are not ready in time. In reality, we ignore many rules when we feel they are too complex or unnecessary, if we follow all rules in every detail, work grinds to a halt.

But when the rules are enforced by computer programs, there is no option of making life simpler by not always follow every directive exactly. And these are examples where computers act as judges, forcing you to exactly abide by every rule. And that is why computers often makes life unnecessarily complex.


Examples Of Rules In Real Life

Example: A breath analyzer (Swedish: Alkolås) is a tool to prevent drunken driving. The driver breathes in the analyzer. If there is too much alcohol in the breath, the driver is not permitted to start the car. But there can be special cases. Suppose the husband has a heart attack or a stroke. His future survival depends on getting him to the hospital rapidly. His wife has drunken a little. In this case, it might be wise to let her drive him to the hospital in spite of having a little alcohol in her breath.

In fact, one way of installing a breath analyzer is not to let it stop her from driving (stopper). Instead, it will report the violation, and a real judge, afterwards, checks if her driving should be permitted in this special case (reporter). This may be a better way of implementing the breath analyzer, because the human can understand the need to diverge from the rule in this special case.

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