Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Preemptive Justice

Chief Inspector Andrews had worked miracles in the city - murders were cut down by 90%, robberies were down by 80%, street crimes reduced by 85%, car thefts dwindled below 70%... surely the Inspector's strategy seemed to be so miraculously effective! His police authority was the first to advocate the new preemptive justice program. With advances in AI and computing, it was made possible to predict who would commit what sort of crime in the near future. People could be tested on the basis of any suspicion; if found as potential criminals, they were arrested and punished in advance. Maybe punished is the "wrong" word - potential criminals were made to go through psychologically intense programs designed to make sure they were reformed, and were released only if the above mentioned tests professed them as safe enough. Often the programs lasted a little less than a year. Andrews argued that if these potential criminals were neglected, the likelihood of them serving a higher sentence/punishment, in addition to disrupting peace in the community in the near future would be high. Yet, liberal organizations protested that it was morally wrong to force down such detentions on people who'd committed no crime. (Original Source: "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick)

It is the dream of many quantum physicists and genetic engineers to be able to predict human nature so accurately so as to benefit the progress of the entire human race - a world engulfed in peace, where children and the innocents don't suffer, where microscopic entities can no longer consume so many lives, and where we humans can finally conquer the greatest mystery that plagues us - the universe's uncertainty. This thought experiment kindles one of the many quandaries and potentially detrimental scenarios that need to be resolved if we indeed believed in having reached such a stage.

Nothing to blow us over better than numbers and statistics - hugely impressive numbers such as 90% reduction in murder is enough to convince most authorities frustrated with prior futile strategies, to immediately jump at implementing the program. The program also comes sugar-coated with reassurances that it's for the benefit of both the entire community as well as the individual, and that the reformative programs are not really "punishments". After all, isn't a reckless driver made to go through special driving seminars, even though he didn't technically commit any crime? No, doubt the justice program does sound reasonable, enticing and oh so ideal - algorithms that can accurately predict human nature, psychological programs that can guarantee reformation of the individual, and a crime-free world of peace.

Of course, some obvious questions of concern would be - 1) The extent of accuracy of these algorithms - it's hard to imagine 100% accurate binary outputs from these algorithms - For one, such outputs reduce us humans into automatons with no free-will (which is a hairy topic by itself). Further, I'm skeptical if we can ever reach a stage wherein we can so strongly draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Assuming that the output is a probabilistic estimate, how does one decide the sensitivity threshold of this estimate to determine a potential criminal?
2) What is the definition of "crime" fed into the algorithm - with the concept of morality continually evolving, will the definition of crimes be dictated by current legal specifications, or through ambiguous definitions as defined by the society?
3) What inputs get fed into the algorithm to extract this decision - the person's genes? Genome code? Brain chemistry? Environmental conditions? Nurture? Past and current behavior? Medical reports? After having recently read a book on Genomes, my take-away point was that all of the above said factors can interact in unpredictably complicated ways to determine our biological and behavioral responses. And those who are well versed in theories of physics are aware of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Laplace, and black holes. Tying with question 1, the accuracy and reliability of such predictive algorithms suffer a serious threat.

Besides, all human beings have their shades of good and bad; it is highly likely for almost all citizens of a state to be classified as a potential criminal at some circumstance/phase. From a practical standpoint, I would think it's more of a resource sink if such an extreme cautionary program is enacted.

If we hypothetically assumed that all these mysteries were solved and there did exist a foolproof algorithm with exceptionally sensitive accuracy, and there were new generations of moral philosophers who had laid down precise rules to define crimes, would this preemptive justice program be conceptually acceptable? To me, it's an irony that the human race would STILL need such a dramatic justice program despite evolving to a state of supreme intelligence wherein we could answer all of the Universe's secrets on uncertainty and resolve debates on good versus evil. If we lived in a generation that was filled with such people wiser than Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell, Dawkins and other such geniuses, why should the community continue to require such mandatory crime reduction programs? If evolution of our rationality cannot seem to put our human race on the path to distinguish between good and bad, and to cohabitate peacefully, especially when there are explicit algorithms to inform us, then there seems to be no hope for our race!

Accepting this program is succumbing to the notion that we are all animals completely controlled and determined by forces beyond our rationality and will. It totally obliterates any little hope we rest on our free-will. Given these extremely disconcerting implications, this program doesn't sound right to me.


SecondSight said...

One word: Gattaca :)

oorjas said...

minority report script huh...?

jokes apart... the first thing that came to my mind was 'Entropy'.. not becuase it is physics but it is the chaos which is there to strike a balance.

it is like tying up all the tigers that thye might kill the deers..

i know it is in no way similar.. but there's a way by which nature strikes balance (of human lives).. and sometimes we are the ones who execute it for the nature..

i am not saying criminals (killers) are doing good.. but...

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - I should watch it soon :)

Oorja - Yeah I've also thought along those lines - it's almost like our universe is designed to survive only through this balance of good and evil, but it also seems like a resigned way of thinking. I'm forcing myself to hope for the best in the future... a world where good can survive without evil ;)