Trust in algorithms and AI is declining. After decades of technological progress we now find ourselves in a time of techno-pessimism. Biased and discriminatory algorithms are making headlines and the centralized nature of AI systems is pushing our society towards totalitarianism. How can order and public trust be restored? I propose that we hold AI systems themselves accountable. AI systems must be put on trial in a court of law and sentenced. Sounds crazy? Maybe, but first it’s going to get a lot crazier.
In the early 19th century the citizens of the English town of Hartepool hanged a monkey, believing it to be a French spy! The monkey was the sole survivor of a French ship that sank off the coast of the town. The shipwreck happened during the Napoleonic Wars. The British feared a possible French invasion at the time and were highly suspicious of spies. After the ship’s pet monkey washed ashore the locals of Hartepool decided to hold a trial on the beach. Because the monkey was allegedly dressed in a French military uniform, to entertain the crew, and because it was unable to answer any questions (it didn’t speak English) the case was clear; the monkey was a French spy. The poor animal was sentenced to death by hanging from the mast of a boat.
Beasts Behind Bars
Animal trials seem to defy logic and are largely forgotten nowadays. However, they were a surprisingly common and public practice in medieval Europe, and lasted as far as into the early 19th century. Domesticated animals such as pigs, dogs and donkeys, but also pests such as rats and locusts were subject to the same legal proceedings as humans. These trials followed strict legal procedures. Formal charges were drawn up, including destroying crops, obscenity and murder, and evidence from both sides was heard by a judge. Witnesses were summoned and animals were even appointed attorneys to conduct their defense. When found guilty the punishment was dire, with animals being exiled or in most cases, executed by hanging.
Trials against animals originated from ancient Greece, made their way into the Roman Empire and eventually spread into medieval Europe by the Catholic Church. The Greeks made no difference between accidental deaths and murder. They also didn’t differentiate between suspects being humans, animals or inanimate (non-living) objects. Trials were performed in the open air, in the vicinity of the Prytaneum which was the sacred hearth of a city. Objects found guilty were either destroyed or cast beyond the borders of the city. Herein lies the origin of the word ‘extermination’ (ex terminare), which literally means to banish beyond boundaries.
And if any lifeless thing deprive a man of life, whether a man is killed by lifeless objects, falling upon him, or by his falling upon them, the nearest of kin shall appoint the nearest neighbour to be a judge. And he shall cast forth the guilty thing beyond the border, as has been said about the animals.– Plato
One such inanimate murderer was the statue of Theagenes of Thasos, a famous Olympic athlete. The people of Thasos immortalized Theagenes with a bronze statue. Every night one of Theagenes’ old rivals, who never was able to beat him, would visit the statue and hit it out of spite. One night however the statue fought back, as it fell on its vengeful opponent, killing him in the process. The vandal’s sons then prosecuted the statue for killing their father, and under Greek law won the case. The statue was thrown into the ocean and justice prevailed once more.
Theagenes, victorious even in death!
Ghost In The Shell
The tradition of contributing legal responsibilities to animals and objects eventually disappeared from Europe. Mainly due to Decartes and his enlightenment successors, which argued that animals lack reason and are therefore unable to commit crimes. They viewed animals as soulless automata, lacking any moral agency. This view has later been contested by the Darwinian revolution, which put us humans and animals in the same moral universe. Interestingly, nowadays there are voices rising in favor of attributing legal personality to animals again, such as monkeys. There are also discussions whether or not to extend legal personality to e.g. rivers and mountains, under what is called environmental personhood, and to AI as well.
Fortunately, no one is arguing to put animals back in the courtroom. However, the purpose of trials against animals, objects and even corpses could not only have been retribution or protection. Why go through all the trouble of a trial then? Instead these trials served an important social purpose, which should not so easily be dismissed. Trials against animals and inanimate objects offered the community a way to restore order in a frightful and incomprehensible world. The chaos and injustice of the world was tamed by offering an explanation under a social narrative that reflects our moral values; human jurisdiction. As justice prevailed, moral balance and psychological safety were restored.
The present is eerily reminiscent of ancient Greece. We again find ourselves in a world with forces which we don’t fully comprehend anymore and in which it’s no longer trivial to attribute accountability. The opaqueness (black box) and distributed accountability of algorithms and AI systems are limiting our understanding. Meanwhile AI systems are discriminating and breaking laws, causing public distrust and outrage. AI systems are the murderous statues of our time.
Until we have fully solved these problems – that is, until we have figured out how to properly align AI systems with our values and bring them under human control, we are in desperate need of a new social narrative. As an intermediate solution I propose a symbolic form of justice inspired by the Greeks: AI systems themselves should be at the center stage of legal proceedings and be held accountable for any wrongdoings. This will send a strong message of legal accountability and justice to the public, that which is currently missing. This can also help shape a proper form of compensatory justice.
I can’t imagine that this solution is in the minds of the European Commission, or any AI policy maker for that matter. However, when done correctly and in absence of an alternative, it might just be the sleight of hand that we need to bridge this issue.
But I’ll let you be the judge of that.
-  KPMG – Dutch public have little confidence in fair use of algorithm by the authorities
-  M.T. Van Meel (2021) – Why Bridges are Racist and AI Totalitarian
-  E.P. Evans (1906) – The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals
-  W.W. Hyde (1917) – The Prosecution of Lifeless Things and Animals in Greek Law: Part 1
-  A.R. Ontillera (2019) – Inside the Cadaver Synod, the trial of a dead pope’s body