Chinese computers to decide death sentences

Written by Brett Thomas

September 14, 2006 // 4:25 p.m.

Tags: #china #death-sentence #qin-ye #shandong

Maybe George Orwell and Aldous Huxley weren't quite so crazy after all, because this could have been ripped right out of Brave New World or 1984. Apparently, the Chinese government is not happy with how easily corrupted its judges are, and so it is reducing their power a little bit - crimes will now be fed into a computer which will determine a 'fair punishment.' This includes putting someone to death.

The software was designed by Qin Ye, who has been working on it since 2003. It is essentially a huge database of legislation, prior cases, and other legal issues. The judge puts in the crime, the mitigating circumstances, and any other important notes and lets the software return an applicable sentence based on the database's stored records. One has to wonder if there's a drop-down for "stole virtual weapons in an online game." Or perhaps it's more of an ad-lib style? Choose the crime, the victim, the utensils - I bet it's Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library!

Whatever the case, the system has already been used in over 1500 trial cases in the eastern Shandong province, where it seems to have produced acceptable results. This two-year test has led the government to start rolling it out on a wider scale to all provincial courts, and it is expected that this will be a feature in every Chinese court soon. This should help make sentencing much easier for the judges, particularly in the 68 different charges that can lead to death by firing squad (including stealing petrol and hacking a computer system).

As the Inquirer points out, this has both good and bad points - it should promote a more uniform and appropriate punishment model, but it also can now be hacked or manipulated externally. But there seems to be a much more pressing issue - one where we are trusting peoples' lives to a computer program. What happens when the computer is wrong?

Is this a slippery slope, or just a good tool? What does it mean for a society to lose its very ability to define crime and punishment? Let us know your thoughts on the matter in our forums.
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