Two things strike me about the most widespread miscarriage of justice ever in the UK (“Calls for an inquiry into scandal that wrongly convicted PO staff”, The Herald, 24/4/21). The first is its resemblance to last year’s exams fiasco when students’ futures were threatened with destruction by a computer algorithm. Now, hundreds of postmasters’ lives have been ruined by another computer system, Horizon. The common factor is a blind belief in the infallibility of digital technology.
The second thing is the strangeness of a remark of the Court of Appeal, that the Post Office’s prosecution of the Horizon cases was “an affront to the conscience of the court”. Affront? An affront, according to Chambers, is an insult, an indignity. Well, it was certainly an affront to the accused, some of whom went to prison, and one of whom committed suicide, but an affront to the court? Why didn’t the Magistrates’ Courts and the Crown Courts just throw these prosecutions out? It was because they, like the Post Office, believed Horizon. If an inquiry finds against individuals in the Post Office, should it not also find against the courts? I suspect any inquiry will come up with a fantastic number of recommendations, and then find a scapegoat.
But what it will miss is the underlying pathology, which is this omnipresent and blind obedience to the graven image of Information Technology. At heart, there is really only one lesson to be learned: that there is no such thing as “Artificial Intelligence”. Smart phones are not smart; they are as thick as two short planks. There is a notion, explored in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, that if you can’t tell the difference between the intelligence of a machine and that of a human being, then there is no difference. It’s based on the assumption, as explored by Ian McEwan in his novel Machines Like Me, that computing devices can resemble human beings. In reality, the game works in the opposite direction. The twenty first century is seeing a concerted effort, driven by the multinational conglomerates, to turn human beings into machines. Of course the private schools invest heavily in IT, because they always follow the money. They turn out formulaic individuals. Hence we ensure that we are led by machines. This is why programmes like Any Questions and Question Time have become so desperately bad.
Computers have a place; you can’t run an MRI scanner without one. But they should be kept well away from all the human interactions that really matter. We must protect and preserve our humanity, and eschew the quantification of human souls.