Man vs. Machine

Written in a pushy and immediate style reminiscent of the hack producers of Gernsbeck’s day, with a low and sometimes scatological focus, Pg Wyal’s A Jury Not of Peers is a story of the criminal sentencing of a murderer. The murderer, referred to only as “the man,” or “the man who fled,” was a semi-literate, semi-skilled laborer who worked in a company town. He pled nolo contendere to a charge of the murder of a company manager, during a night of drunken revelry over some slight involving a company prostitute. This story is a new one to me so I read it a few times before sitting down to write this essay. The society in it is either the most enlightened or the most cowardly out there, and I am still scratching my head about the conclusion.

As an aside, “nolo contendere” means “no contest,” and its a formal method of answering charges in most if not all jurisdictions. “Guilty,” “not guilty” and “innocent” are the traditional methods of answering charges, and should be self-explanatory. A plea of “no contest” means that the defendant does has not way of arguing innocence, and does not wish to contest the charges made against him or her. It is a way of going directly to sentencing without pleading guilty. It is a common law concept from the English common law, though most scholars believe that it predates the Roman system of law.

The story is about an artificially intelligent judge that has been built, it seems, to replace people entirely in the criminal justice system. Wyal postulated that in this future Earth-clone world, society had become so complex that humans gave up trying to figure out the mess that was human interaction, and devised an AI judge to try the accused and sentence the guilty. This was my first Wyal story, and while I cannot comment from a wide experience about his writing style, I can say that I was not impressed too much by this story. I can also say with confidence that Wyal was not one of the greats. I think what he was trying to say here was not that the complexity of human interactions has become unmanageable over time and because of an increase in the number of people. That’s kind of absurd, actually. I think what he was trying to say was that people had reached a point where they threw their hands up as if to say, “you know, if after all these thousands of years we still cannot figure out what is in someone else’s minds, then we probably never will.” I say that not because Wyal told us this, but because that is one of the motifs that the story turns upon: The inability to truly know the mind of The Other. The way that Wyal explores that was by examining the propriety of judging someone else.

The issue was responsibility: The world had reached a state of nearly infinite complexity, which no single person, or group of persons, could hope to comprehend. Nothing had ever happened to sweep away this monster of complexity, so the difficulty of understanding piled up, as the society had piled up. Within this endless maze, men made their daily lives. Sometimes they erred; sometimes, whether meaning to or not, they hurt themselves or other people, or broke one of the endless rules necessary to sustain such utter civilized complexity…The problem was intelligence, sensitivity: Nobody was smart or wise enough to settle the disputes or solve the problems. No human being was good enough to judge another. To weigh a human life in the scales of collective justice and individual compassion.

See what I mean about his style? Even if you ignore the run on sentences and fragments, he’s still quite confusing. Unfortunately this is just the beginning of the confusion.

To solve this problem of reluctance, which looks like apathy but apparently is an enlightened response, they invented an artificial brain. In describing the brain Wyal again lost me.

It could not lie. It could not feel. It had no selfish interests against which to balance its decisions.

So it was a cold calculator designed to render logical justice, right?


It was essentially a human being, with all a human’s foibles, faults and diversionary thinking. The machine considered morality, law, religion, and even the way that the defendant was dressed and sounded. It even sounded shocked that the man ran after killing his victim, instead of coldly citing to precedent justifying an increased sentence. It was actually amazing the way that Wyal contracted himself within just a few short paragraphs. Its almost like he had to put effort into messing up so badly.

The man was brought before the judge after pleading no contest. He was placed in a room alone with the machine’s squawk box and an electronic eye, and nothing or nobody else. The man was basically a corporate slave. He was educated as far as the corporation required, which was not much, then trained to do a menial job until he died. All of his money went to the corporate store, which sold booze, drugs and women, and was otherwise told by the Company what to do, when and where: He was a slave. Or at least some sort of lifelong indenture, if there is a difference. When questioned the man told the machine that he killed the man over a relatively minor slight, which was amplified in his mind because of the years of abuse he had been subjected to. He was tired of being treated like property, or a throw-away person, and the victim, who was his superior and wont to treat him that way, just was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man had had enough.

The AI spent some time with the man and tried to draw mitigating facts from him, but he was either too stupid or too mad to cooperate. I was a bit shocked when the machine set him free, telling him that no man may judge another, so no machine based on man could judge him. The only thing it did was chastise him for “judging” the victim and categorizing him among his tormentors.

The voice of the machine went on, distant and severe. “Now I am called upon to judge. Society judges harshly those who break its most sacred trust. Yet no man is all the world. That is why I am judging you, and not a human being: no single man is responsible for another man’s life. Or death. The responsibility is up to the collective Whole; herewith I represent the whole.

When I first read the story I kind of glossed over the preceding language. I was not really sure here if Wyal was saying that no man could ever walk in another’s shoes and thus could not judge him, or if he was saying that in fact you can walk in another’s shoes, and in this case the powerless slave was justified in his ill-thought crime because he is dense, uneducated and uncouth and could not be expected to do anything differently. I suppose either could fit the conclusion of the story (mainly because Wyal is all over the place here), but the problem is that the approach was just a bit too “enlightened,” especially for the gritty, unfair and harsh world that these people lived in. I mean, who on a planet of company slaves would ever think to come up with a compassionate computer which would forgo passing judgment and ignore traditional penal theories? I just didn’t see it coming at all. But I think that the language above really says that the whole of society is responsible for producing this one man, with all of his faults, so society alone should pay the price. Apparently that meant having to put up with this impulsive killer walking around. I’m not sure how “enlightened” a result that really is, but I do think that the better answer from above is the latter: The man was freed because his response was what you should expect from him, and since society made him, it can’t punish him now.

Society traditionally takes one of two approaches to the punishment of criminals: Rehabilitative or retributive. Each involve some sort of punishment, and the differences between the two approaches generally play out in the length and/or severity of the punishment. These important theories are in this story tossed out the window in favor of a system that takes people as they are and decides if they have acted in accord with their potential.

The other factor that criminal sentencers generally take into consideration is victim rights, or victim’s family desires, although if this is an enlightened society then it would make sense that the victim’s family may be forgiving too. There has been some controversy in the past over the impact of victim’s family statements. Some feel that they unduly influence judges in the sentencing of criminal and result in unconstitutionally long sentences. Others argue that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to shift the revenge burden off of the individual victim and over to the state, so that revenge is not enacted in the streets. They demand that the victims be heard so that the judge can be aware of the damage that the defendant has really done. The problem with this story is that the AI judge here has been programmed to ignore every bit of this. There is no punishment here at all. There really is not even a growth opportunity, as the defendant is a meat-head who will probably drink and whore to celebrate. It’s certainly not like the AI judge took the time to explain its sentence. Hell, I’m a specialist here and I can’t really figure this out. I think what we have here is a hack writer who stumbled upon a socially relevant concept, then butchered a story that explored it.

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