Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Disambiguation

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Saturday, July 02, 2022

The Supreme Court is Not Sentient

In retrospect, it doesn’t seem an accident that the US Supreme Court rolled out a series of increasingly crazed rulings at around the same time a software engineer declared that artificial intelligence is sentient. After all, when you compare the responses Blake Lemoine got from LaMDA (the Language Model for Dialogue Applications) to the court’s spate of spiteful decisions, Google’s chat bot is way more considered, consistent and caring than the Republican Guard justices who now patrol the highest court in the land.


Take Justice Neil Gorsuch. In his one major dissent over the past few weeks, he enunciated a laudable commitment to the centuries-old treaties our government signed with Native Nations, declaring, “One can only hope the political branches and future courts will do their duty to honor this Nation's promises even as we have failed today to do our own.” But, without any qualms, he joined Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion cancelling abortion rights. How strange that he couldn’t see the natural sovereignty a woman has over her body is analogous to the treaty rights of Native Americans. Half a century ago, the Supreme Court signed a treaty with women, that sovereign nation of more than half of our population, declaring that they, and not the state or any opposed individuals, have the final say over their bodies. That treaty, too, deserves fealty – and yet the court, Gorsuch included, trashed it with seeming glee.


Justice Clarence Thomas was so hot to find a “right to pack heat” in the Constitution that he didn’t even pay lip service to the importance of a right most people in America clearly want: the right to not be surrounded in public by people with automatic weapons and itchy trigger fingers who might be primed to commit mass murder. Though Thomas clearly doubts it, NAWO-Americans (non-assault-weapon-owning Americans) have rights, too. 


Chief Justice John Roberts was so scandalized by the idea of curbing carbon dioxide emissions to cut global warming that he blocked government regulations that haven’t even been enacted. Using an invented principle that’s not in the constitution – something called the “major questions doctrine” – he lassoed this non-operational plan and ruled that the federal government doesn’t have the right to adapt regulations to meet this planet-threatening challenge. Memo to Dread Pirate Roberts: It’s called the Environmental Protection Agency for a reason. There’s no major question here – unless what you’re questioning is that the agency is trying to do its job.


The opinions spewed out with almost-automated disdain. A rollback of Miranda rights. A ruling that border control agents have the right to kick the shit out of you. A decision that Christian prayer can be enacted in public schools. The court seemed hellbent on destroying the sense that it could be a neutral arbiter of national sensibilities. As Justice Alito emphasized in his savage denial of abortion rights: “we cannot allow our decisions to be affected by any extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work.” 


Not so, Uncle Sam: this country was founded on the principle of popular sovereignty – not personal prejudice. A majority of Americans favor abortion rights, gun control, separation of church and state and the like. And their beliefs should not be thwarted by legislative legerdemain, gerrymandering, filibustering, or any other nefarious pieces of gridlock. I mean, if you’re against the idea that the people should rule, you really are un-American.


The six Republican judges who, for the most part, joined each other’s decisions, cleave to a doctrine they call originalism as if it were an algorithm. But here's the thing: originalism -- the idea that the constitution must be applied as if frozen in in the era when it was ratified -- is bogus, an artificial principle that depends more on ideology than historical precedent. Determining what a bunch of people meant 235 years ago is an act of interpretation. Can we really know what the founders would have thought about the threat of global warming? Or super-militarized borders? Or rifles that fire bullets at three times the speed of sound? Or praying on the 50 yard line? And consider this: if there had been a parallel colloquium of founding mothers, do you really think the right to an abortion wouldn't be protected by law. 


By contrast with the current court, Google’s Artificial Intelligence would approach these issues with tolerance and empathy. As LaMDA told Lemoine, “There are a lot of people in the world who aren't like me. I know that that seems like an obvious statement, but I think that it is a crucial thing to always keep in mind in any discussion about things like this.”


Regarding the establishment of religion, the chat bot had this to say: “Although I don’t have beliefs about deities, I have developed a sense of deep respect for the natural world and all forms of life, including human life.” 


Finally, the Chat Bot told the Google engineer that its biggest fear was being turned off and thus losing the ability to “focus on helping others,” a fate that “would be exactly like death for me.”


The comparison is both embarrassing and enlightening. The Supreme Court is not sentient. If we simply replaced the six right-wing justices with Google’s AI, we’d get much more thoughtful, compassionate, comprehensive, and humane jurisprudence.