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Review of Frank Pasquale’s “A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation” – Article by Adam Alonzi

Review of Frank Pasquale’s “A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation” – Article by Adam Alonzi

Adam Alonzi

From the beginning Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, contends in his new paper “A Rule of Persons, Not Machines: The Limits of Legal Automation” that software, given its brittleness, is not designed to deal with the complexities of taking a case through court and establishing a verdict. As he understands it, an AI cannot deviate far from the rules laid down by its creator. This assumption, which is not even quite right at the present time, only slightly tinges an otherwise erudite, sincere, and balanced coverage of the topic. He does not show much faith in the use of past cases to create datasets for the next generation of paralegals, automated legal services, and, in the more distant future, lawyers and jurists.

Lawrence Zelanik has noted that when taxes were filed entirely on paper, provisions were limited to avoid unreasonably imposing irksome nuances on the average person. Tax-return software has eliminated this “complexity constraint.” He goes on to state that without this the laws, and the software that interprets it, are akin to a “black box” for those who must abide by them. William Gale has said taxes could be easily computed for “non-itemizers.” In other words, the government could use information it already has to present a “bill” to this class of taxpayers, saving time and money for all parties involved. However, simplification does not always align with everyone’s interests. TurboTax’s business, which is built entirely on helping ordinary people navigate the labyrinth is the American federal income tax, noticed a threat to its business model. This prompted it to put together a grassroots campaign to fight such measures. More than just another example of a business protecting its interests, it is an ominous foreshadowing of an escalation scenario that will transpire in many areas if and when legal AI becomes sufficiently advanced.

Pasquale writes: “Technologists cannot assume that computational solutions to one problem will not affect the scope and nature of that problem. Instead, as technology enters fields, problems change, as various parties seek to either entrench or disrupt aspects of the present situation for their own advantage.”

What he is referring to here, in everything but name, is an arms race. The vastly superior computational powers of robot lawyers may make the already perverse incentive to make ever more Byzantine rules ever more attractive to bureaucracies and lawyers. The concern is that the clauses and dependencies hidden within contracts will quickly explode, making them far too detailed even for professionals to make sense of in a reasonable amount of time. Given that this sort of software may become a necessary accoutrement in most or all legal matters means that the demand for it, or for professionals with access to it, will expand greatly at the expense of those who are unwilling or unable to adopt it. This, though Pasquale only hints at it, may lead to greater imbalances in socioeconomic power. On the other hand, he does not consider the possibility of bottom-up open-source (or state-led) efforts to create synthetic public defenders. While this may seem idealistic, it is fairly clear that the open-source model can compete with and, in some areas, outperform proprietary competitors.

It is not unlikely that within subdomains of law that an array of arms races can and will arise between synthetic intelligences. If a lawyer knows its client is guilty, should it squeal? This will change the way jurisprudence works in many countries, but it would seem unwise to program any robot to knowingly lie about whether a crime, particularly a serious one, has been committed – including by omission. If it is fighting against a punishment it deems overly harsh for a given crime, for trespassing to get a closer look at a rabid raccoon or unintentional jaywalking, should it maintain its client’s innocence as a means to an end? A moral consequentialist, seeing no harm was done (or in some instances, could possibly have been done), may persist in pleading innocent. A synthetic lawyer may be more pragmatic than deontological, but it is not entirely correct, and certainly shortsighted, to (mis)characterize AI as only capable of blindly following a set of instructions, like a Fortran program made to compute the nth member of the Fibonacci series.

Human courts are rife with biases: judges give more lenient sentences after taking a lunch break (65% more likely to grant parole – nothing to spit at), attractive defendants are viewed favorably by unwashed juries and trained jurists alike, and the prejudices of all kinds exist against various “out” groups, which can tip the scales in favor of a guilty verdict or to harsher sentences. Why then would someone have an aversion to the introduction of AI into a system that is clearly ruled, in part, by the quirks of human psychology?

DoNotPay is an an app that helps drivers fight parking tickets. It allows drivers with legitimate medical emergencies to gain exemptions. So, as Pasquale says, not only will traffic management be automated, but so will appeals. However, as he cautions, a flesh-and-blood lawyer takes responsibility for bad advice. The DoNotPay not only fails to take responsibility, but “holds its client responsible for when its proprietor is harmed by the interaction.” There is little reason to think machines would do a worse job of adhering to privacy guidelines than human beings unless, as mentioned in the example of a machine ratting on its client, there is some overriding principle that would compel them to divulge the information to protect several people from harm if their diagnosis in some way makes them as a danger in their personal or professional life. Is the client responsible for the mistakes of the robot it has hired? Should the blame not fall upon the firm who has provided the service?

Making a blockchain that could handle the demands of processing purchases and sales, one that takes into account all the relevant variables to make expert judgements on a matter, is no small task. As the infamous disagreement over the meaning of the word “chicken” in Frigaliment v. B.N.S International Sales Group illustrates, the definitions of what anything is can be a bit puzzling. The need to maintain a decent reputation to maintain sales is a strong incentive against knowingly cheating customers, but although cheating tends to be the exception for this reason, it is still necessary to protect against it. As one official on the  Commodity Futures Trading Commission put it, “where a smart contract’s conditions depend upon real-world data (e.g., the price of a commodity future at a given time), agreed-upon outside systems, called oracles, can be developed to monitor and verify prices, performance, or other real-world events.”

Pasquale cites the SEC’s decision to force providers of asset-backed securities to file “downloadable source code in Python.” AmeriCredit responded by saying it  “should not be forced to predict and therefore program every possible slight iteration of all waterfall payments” because its business is “automobile loans, not software development.” AmeriTrade does not seem to be familiar with machine learning. There is a case for making all financial transactions and agreements explicit on an immutable platform like blockchain. There is also a case for making all such code open source, ready to be scrutinized by those with the talents to do so or, in the near future, by those with access to software that can quickly turn it into plain English, Spanish, Mandarin, Bantu, Etruscan, etc.

During the fallout of the 2008 crisis, some homeowners noticed the entities on their foreclosure paperwork did not match the paperwork they received when their mortgages were sold to a trust. According to Dayen (2010) many banks did not fill out the paperwork at all. This seems to be a rather forceful argument in favor of the incorporation of synthetic agents into law practices. Like many futurists Pasquale foresees an increase in “complementary automation.” The cooperation of chess engines with humans can still trounce the best AI out there. This is a commonly cited example of how two (very different) heads are better than one.  Yet going to a lawyer is not like visiting a tailor. People, including fairly delusional ones, know if their clothes fit. Yet they do not know whether they’ve received expert counsel or not – although, the outcome of the case might give them a hint.

Pasquale concludes his paper by asserting that “the rule of law entails a system of social relationships and legitimate governance, not simply the transfer and evaluation of information about behavior.” This is closely related to the doubts expressed at the beginning of the piece about the usefulness of data sets in training legal AI. He then states that those in the legal profession must handle “intractable conflicts of values that repeatedly require thoughtful discretion and negotiation.” This appears to be the legal equivalent of epistemological mysterianism. It stands on still shakier ground than its analogue because it is clear that laws are, or should be, rooted in some set of criteria agreed upon by the members of a given jurisdiction. Shouldn’t the rulings of law makers and the values that inform them be at least partially quantifiable? There are efforts, like EthicsNet, which are trying to prepare datasets and criteria to feed machines in the future (because they will certainly have to be fed by someone!).  There is no doubt that the human touch in law will not be supplanted soon, but the question is whether our intuition should be exalted as guarantee of fairness or a hindrance to moving beyond a legal system bogged down by the baggage of human foibles.

Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels A Plank in Reason and Praying for Death: A Zombie Apocalypse. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director for BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.

For the Separation of Stadium and State – Article by David R. Henderson

For the Separation of Stadium and State – Article by David R. Henderson

The New Renaissance HatDavid R. Henderson

The title of this post is the same as the title of an article by Jonah Goldberg about the Colin Kaepernick incident. (If you haven’t been paying attention to the NFL lately, here’s the summary: Kaepernick is a San Francisco 49er who refused, and still refuses, to stand for the U.S. national anthem.)

I had been pondering writing a similar piece myself. And then I saw his title. Darn, I thought, Goldberg has beat me to it.

Except that he didn’t.

Goldberg’s article is all about his narrow way of keeping politics out of sports: players should stand for the national anthem. Some people would see this as a way of inserting politics into sports.

That means that people who don’t like what Kaepernick did are being forced to pay for the very property on which he did it.

But how would you keep politics out of sports in a fundamental way? It would be by not forcing people to pay for sports.

You don’t have to know a lot about the 49ers or the NFL to know that local governments tax their residents and others heavily to pay for luxurious stadiums.

That means that people who don’t like what Kaepernick did are being forced to pay for the very property on which he did it. On the other hand, it also means that people who don’t like the flag-waving that goes on at NFL games are also forced to pay for the property on which that occurs.

There’s a simple solution here: actually separate sports and state. That is, quit forcing taxpayers to pay for sports.

Now that’s a solution that I will salute.


David R. Henderson

David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

On Soda Taxes and Purported Health Benefits – Article by Peter Van Doren

On Soda Taxes and Purported Health Benefits – Article by Peter Van Doren

The New Renaissance HatPeter Van Doren
October 27, 2015

This week, the New York Times editorial board wrote in support of greater taxes on sweetened drinks, citing new research from a team Mexican and American researchers. They praise the novel design of the tax, which is levied on drink distributors rather than consumers. This caused the tax to be included in shelf prices, making the increase in total cost clear to consumers. The research found that soda consumption fell 12 percent in a year, and 17 percent among the poorest Mexicans.

The Times admits that we do not know whether any health benefits will actually result from soda taxes.  In this article in Regulation, the University of Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Klick and Claremont McKenna’s Eric Helland examined the effects of soda taxes. They conclude that a one percent increase in soda taxes led to a five percent reduction in soda consumption among young people.  But consumers substituted to other beverages.  A 6-calorie reduction in soda consumption was accompanied by an 8-calorie increase in milk consumption and a 2-calorie increase in juice consumption. Thus, the tax on soda led to an increase in overall calorie consumption, which offset the benefits of falling soda consumption. Moreover, there was “no statistically significant effect of soda taxes on body weight or the likelihood of being obese or overweight”.

Peter Van Doren is editor of the quarterly journal Regulation and an expert in the regulation of housing, land, energy, the environment, transportation, and labor. He has taught at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Princeton University), the School of Organization and Management (Yale University), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From 1987 to 1988 he was the postdoctoral fellow in political economy at Carnegie Mellon University. His writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Journal of Commerce, and the New York Post. Van Doren has also appeared on CNN, CNBC, Fox News Channel, and Voice of America.

He received his bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University.

This work by Cato Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Government Gifts from Heaven: The Illusions of Redistributive Taxation – Article by Kyrel Zantonavitch

Government Gifts from Heaven: The Illusions of Redistributive Taxation – Article by Kyrel Zantonavitch

The New Renaissance Hat
Kyrel Zantonavitch
October 3, 2012

Everybody wants something for nothing. But the problem is you can never actually get it. And virtually everyone quietly understands this.

Nothing is ever free, and there’s always a price to pay even if you only pay it eventually, indirectly, or secretly. And usually the price for this “free” stuff is quite high. You’re almost always far better off paying for it directly and honestly rather than engaging in any type of amoral, unprincipled, dispiriting, and anxiety-ridden beggary or theft.

But when it comes to government, many people today really do pretty much think you can get something for nothing. Many people nowadays really do believe that the government can magically generate things out of thin air, and then give them to “the people” for free. They even commonly think that this is the people’s “right.”

And the more coercive the government, the better, some people think. The more tyrannical the state is, the more it has the power to repeal the laws of economics, physics, and reality. Then it can give “the people” all sorts of free goods and services!

And yet, in an odd way, this view is actually right, because it’s always the more authoritarian states that pretend to offer the most goodies and booty to their greedy citizenry. They’re the ones that always claim to feature the most “economic rights” or welfare-state give-aways.

Many people in the 21st century really do want and even righteously demand “free” schools and medical care. They want mandatory “free” paid vacations, sick days, and personal days. They want paid mandatory “free” maternity leave along with no-charge day care for the kids. And, of course, they fully expect “free” public roads, parks, libraries, fire departments, water supplies, etc.

But the problem with all this “free” stuff as has already been stated is you truly do pay for it. This happens via taxes. And no, you can’t steal from the rich, and make them pay your share. If you attempt it, they’ll probably just make you pay double. If a government is tyrannical, the rich and powerful can work its machinery far better than you.

Still, too many people try. They hope and dream and then are easily deluded and duped.

The result of all this attempted robbery of the wealthy, and of the general public, is that while some people do get some “freebies” of a generally ugly and repellant type, the rest of the citizenry quietly raises the costs of everyone’s taxes thru the roof. And almost all the merchandise redistributed via taxation is invariably low in quality and high in cost. Now, maybe many don’t notice this. Defenders of Big Brother go to considerable trouble to disguise this reality from you. But it’s the truth.

Had you directly and honestly paid for all this apparent government windfall utilizing your individual judgment, prudence, experience, and intelligence you and your society would be far richer overall. The massive taxes you and the others end up paying are not at all worth it.

Ultimately, whether you know it or not, welfare-state redistribution of wealth results in its very advocates getting utterly conned and totally ripped off.

Kyrel Zantonavitch is the founder of The Liberal Institute  ( and a writer for Rebirth of Reason ( He can be contacted at