Codebreaker – The Decisive Machine

Interesting game. The only winning move is not to play.

Because, really, I’ll use any excuse to quote WarGames. In this case, it’s used at the beginning of the latest episode of the Codebreaker podcast, which talks about The Decisive Machine.

Each episode takes a technological concept and asks “Is it Evil?”. Past episodes have been about things like email and internet porn, but this one is perhaps the first that tackles something larger than what you might find on your smartphone or home PC.

Of most interest was the discussion about algorithms being used in parole board decisions. There was some friction between the inventor of the software used to determine whether people should stay in jail or go free and the host, who wanted to know how the issues of race, gender and economic background played in to the decision and, furthermore, whether they should.

The software engineer was cagey, using specious arguments about whether a judge or juror could ever really be unbiased and that was pretty much it for the debate. The use of pure logic, unfettered by moral and political ideas, seemed vaguely horrific to contemplate, but that is perhaps what makes it so interesting. Personally, I think it’s deeply unpleasant to think about that sort of decision taken out of human hands, but perhaps that’s what makes it valuable, not as a practical tool but in use for theoretical political modelling. Rather than try and adjust the computer so that it takes into account the social inequalities we seem to take as read, maybe we should be trying to shape our society to pass the pure test of the justice machine. If a disproportionate number of inmates are black males, what needs to be changed socially and politically in order for there to be balanced and just sentencing?

It’s the first episode of Codebreaker which has actually given me pause for thought. I’ll continue to listen.


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