Rochester Science

Show Me The Strength of Your Singular Eye

In the American Colonies, before the Revolution, taxation was done at the whim of a Parliament in which American tax payers had no representation whatsoever. But far worse for many Americans caught a-foul of the law, settling disputes and penalties with the British legal system often meant showing up in court in Merry Old England herself. Such a voyage in those days meant months and years away from the very properties these Americans we trying to maintain, to say nothing of the lost income and extra expense of the voyage, lodging in England and the like. It was precisely these types of extreme hardships – much more so than the taxation itself – that prompted a few well-educated and wealthy Americans to start plotting the Revolution.

The American Revolution can therefore be thought of in a certain context as a radical renegotiation of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Not simply a reinvention of government, but forging of a new principle of power sharing, supported by thousands of legal pleadings in British courts, up to and including the final and most famous Declaration of Independence.

But I don’t recall having reached any such deal with cameras or computers.[1. Title of this post provided by a lyric from Yes: Machine Messiah]

More and more municipal governments, including most recently Rochester, have been employing red light cameras and other automated means of handling law enforcement issues. This is raising many legal and ethical concerns among many quarters, as Doug Emblidge points to in his above-linked blog post. My concern may seem oblique, but it seems to me that implicit in the negotiation of law is the fact that law exists as a guidepost towards justice, not an iron-clad set of parameters from within which a computer program is expected to perform.

This is not an abstract concept for philosophy classes, nor is it a plot for some 1970’s “computers take over the world” scenario movie. No set of circumstances which deviates from the law yields any other outcome for a computer than a violation of that law, and even if the issue can be resolved in a court, we once again require that potentially innocent people take time out of their lives to prove thier innocence – or potentially fail to – at the behest of a set of arbitrary laws.

Cops do not issue tickets for every violation they see. They don’t even issue tickets for every person they pull over. Computers contain no subroutines for compassion or clemency.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

3 replies on “Show Me The Strength of Your Singular Eye”

I agree completely.

I once sat a ridiculously long time at a red light in Penfield. Then, I thought to myself, " it's 3 AM and there's no one anywhere near here". So, I made an illegal right on red. And, of course, I was pulled over by a cop who'd hidden himself pretty well. He did a quick check to make sure I was sober and didn't have any outstanding warrants & sent me on my way. No ticket was issued. Under the circumstances you describe above, the fact that I was acting reasonably wouldn't be taken into consideration. They'd simply say, you broke the law. Here's your ticket.

I also wonder how they will determine who was actually driving at the time someone ran a red light, or whatever the offense may be.

Determining who is in the car is one of the major points hit by Doug Emblidge's post, actually. And more to the point, if the owner has to prove who is in the car, that flips the burden of proof on its head.

Well, yeah, it's not a subtle tool. I guess I'm wondering how bad the problem is. How many people are getting hurt? How many cars have been T-boned? I mean you could make the case that cars themselves are not the best tools for getting around town. Technology is a bitch- all around.

Let's say the problem is bad. What's the cost of a ticket? $100? So if the program costs $4000 a month the break even point is 40 drivers getting ticketed a month for running the red. But let's say the program works and Rochesterians learn how to obey the red light. Now nobody is getting ticketed and we're in the hole $48,000 a year. If that saves somebody's life who is going to say it isn't worth the cost or the intrusion in our lives?

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