Searching for smart, safe news you can TRUST?

Support safe, smart, REAL journalism. Sign up for our Axios AM & PM newsletters and get smarter, faster.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Searching for smart, safe news you can TRUST?

Support safe, smart, REAL journalism. Sign up for our Axios AM & PM newsletters and get smarter, faster.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Minneapolis-St. Paul

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa-St. Petersburg news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa-St. Petersburg

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A court hands down an opinion: thoughtfully reasoned, forcefully argued, eminently fair. It’s lauded widely — until it comes out that the author wasn't a renowned judge but rather an advanced artificial intelligence system.

The big question: Should the opinion be rejected because of its source, even if it’s indistinguishable from — or better than — what a human would have produced?

Even though today’s AI is woefully unprepared for the job, legal scholars are already debating whether computers should someday be entrusted with enormous legal decisions.

  • Experts differ on whether it’s sufficient for an AI judge to perfectly emulate a human one, given that it’s not actually capable of "thinking" like a person.
  • The core issue is AI’s decision-making process — or lack thereof.

Intelligent is as intelligent does, argues Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, in a forthcoming paper for the Duke Law Journal.

  • A computer should be accepted if a panel of humans thinks the opinions it writes are on par with or better than those written by a human judge — the legal version of the Turing Test, Volokh argues.
  • "It becomes hard to say why we should prefer judges who are proven to produce a worse work product," Volokh said in a lecture at Stanford last week.
  • Beyond smarts, said Volokh, "wise, merciful, compassionate, and judicious is as it does." It doesn’t matter if a computer can or cannot possess these human traits — it only matters that a human would say that they are reflected in what it produces.

But University of Ottawa professor Ian Kerr says how a decision is arrived at matters as much as the outcome.

  • "Everything is in the practice," says Kerr, who co-wrote a 2014 article on AI judges with fellow University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen. "The process is the point of the exercise."

Even when an AI system seems to make thoughtful judgments, it is actually only piecing together elements of cases in its database.

  • It’s the same way AI-generated artwork or music is really just an amalgam of human-created work, combined in a novel way.
  • To Kerr, this distinction matters. Citing British legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart, a deceased Oxford professor, he says that machines can know what is — drawing on training datasets — but not what ought to be, which requires a broader moral understanding of the world.

This means an AI judge will at its best perfectly apply existing law — but not push it forward, like Supreme Court justices do in landmark cases.

  • Without a sense of changing societal norms, a computerized judge would be stuck in the past, capable only of regurgitating the conventions embedded in the common law that existed at the time of its creation.
  • "An algorithm could've given us Dred Scott or Korematsu," said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, referring to a pair of Supreme Court decisions now considered morally wrong. But it would not know, decades later, that it had misjudged.
  • In this way, a mechanical judge would be extremely conservative, Calo said, interpreting the law’s text without considering any outside factors at all.

Ultimately, Volokh agrees, people will continue to have a place in the justice system even if computers are proven to write better opinions.

  • Human judges may need to step in when a case calls for developing the law, he said.
  • Taking away people entirely would undermine a key element of the justice system, says Calo: the human touch. The dignity of having case heard by humans is a necessary part of the process of justice, he said.

Go deeper

Updated 27 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Ipsos poll: COVID trick-or-treat — Study: Trump campaign rallies likely led to over 700 COVID-related deaths.
  2. World: Boris Johnson announces month-long lockdown in England — Greece tightens coronavirus restrictions as Europe cases spike — Austria reimposes coronavirus lockdowns amid surge of infections.
  3. Technology: Fully at-home rapid COVID test to move forward.
  4. States: New York rolls out new testing requirements for visitors.

North Carolina police pepper-spray protesters marching to the polls

Officers in North Carolina used pepper spray on protesters and arrested eight people at a get-out-the-vote rally at Alamance County’s courthouse Saturday during the final day of early voting, the City of Graham Police Department confirmed.

Driving the news: The peaceful "I Am Change" march to the polls was organized by Rev. Greg Drumwright, from the Citadel Church in Greensboro, N.C., and included a minute's silence for George Floyd. Melanie Mitchell told the News & Observer her daughters, age 5 and 11, were among those pepper-sprayed by police soon after.

7 hours ago - Health

Boris Johnson announces month-long COVID-19 lockdown in England

Prime Minsiter Boris Johnson. Photo: NurPhoto / Getty Images

A new national lockdown will be imposed in England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Saturday, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country topped 1 million.

Details: Starting Thursday, people in England must stay at home, and bars and restaurants will close, except for takeout and deliveries. All non-essential retail will also be shuttered. Different households will be banned from mixing indoors. International travel, unless for business purposes, will be banned. The new measures will last through at least December 2.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!