strict liability; law

Strict-ish liability? An experiment in the law as algorithm

Some researchers in the US recently conducted an ‘experiment in the law as algorithm’. (One of the researchers involved with the project was interviewed by Ars Technia, here.) At first glance, this seems like quite a simple undertaking for someone with knowledge of a particular law and mathematical proficiency: laws are clearly defined rules, which can be broken in clearly defined ways. This is most true for strict liability offences, which require no proof of a mental element of the offence (the mens rea). An individual can commit a strict liability offence even if she had no knowledge that her act was criminal and had no intention to commit the crime. All that is required under strict liability statutes is that the act itself (the actus reus) is voluntary. Essentially: if you did it, you’re liable – it doesn’t matter why or how. So, for strict liability offences such as speeding it would seem straightforward enough to create an algorithm that could compare actual driving speed with the legal speed limit, and adjudicate liability accordingly.

This possibility of law as algorithm is what the US researchers aimed to test out with their experiment. They imagined the future possibility of automated law enforcement, especially for simple laws like those governing driving. To conduct their experiment, the researchers assigned a group of 52 programmers the task of automating the enforcement of driving speed limits. A late-model vehicle was equipped with a sensor that collected actual vehicle speed over an hour-long commute. The programmers (without collaboration) each wrote a program that computed the number of speed limit violations and issued mock traffic tickets. Continue reading