In 1603, English officials arrested Sir Walter Raleigh. They charged him with treason. He was allegedly involved in a plot to overthrow and kill the new King, James I.
At his trial, prosecutors entered just one piece of evidence. It was a confession letter written by the man who allegedly planned the plot, Lord Cobham. The letter named Raleigh a co-conspirator.
Sir Walter Raleigh said the confession alone was not reliable. If he could bring Cobhamto testify in court, he would at least have a chance to cross-examine the only witness against him.
But the English courts at the time were not particularly interested in due process. They convicted Raleigh without allowing him to confront or examine the witness.
He was imprisoned, and eventually executed.
Fast forward to USA, 2017. A man faces murder charges. And the main witness against him is a computer algorithm.
The algorithm analyzes complex DNA samples. It decides if the DNA of the accused is present in a sample.
Naturally, the defendant wants to know how exactly the algorithm works.
And he has good cause to wonder. His earlier conviction for the same murder had relied on a different DNA testing machine.
But scientists later decided the algorithm wasn’t quite right. The evidence that convicted him was changed from positive to inconclusive.
He had been sitting in prison, convicted of murder, based on a faulty algorithm!
So at the new trial, the defense asks to examine the new machine’s algorithm. But the company that designed the algorithm doesn’t like that idea.
The algorithm is a trade secret. It was costly to develop, and they don’t want that secret getting out.
We’re living in the age of algorithms.
An algorithm chooses which music you listen to. And Spotify does a pretty good job… A faulty algorithm might force you to listen to a gospel song instead of gangster rap. Not the biggest deal…