Monday, June 20, 2016

The subtle complexities of legal/contractual ambiguity

The law is not a set of simple rules and the rule of law is not - and arguably cannot -be reduced to a Turing Machine evaluating some formal expression of said rules.

A theme of mine for some time has been how dangerous it is to junp to conclusions about the extent to which the process of law - and its expression in the laws themselves  - can be looked upon purely in terms of a deductive logic system in disguise.

Laws, contracts etc. often contain ambiguities that are there on purpose. Some are tactical. Some are there in recognition of the reality that concepts like "fairness" and "reasonable efforts" are both useful and unquantifiable.

In short there are tactical, social and deep jurisprudence-related reasons for the presence ambiguity in laws/contracts.

Trying to remove them can lead to unpleasant results.

Case in point : the draining of millions of dollars from the DAO. See writeup on Bloomberg : Ethereum Smart Contracts

Friday, June 17, 2016

25 years if the Internet in Ireland - a personal recollection of the early days

So today is the Internets 25th anniversary in Ireland.
In 1991 I was working with a financial trading company, developing technical analysis software for financial futures traders in 8086 assembly language and C using PCs equipped with TMS34010 graphics boards.

I cannot remember how exactly...possible through the Unix Users Group I ended up getting a 4800 KBS modem connection to a Usenet feed from Trinity via the SLIP protocol.

Every day I would dial up and download comp.text.sgml from Usenet onto my Sun Roadrunner X86 "workstation".

Not long thereafter, Ireland Online happened and I was then dialling up Furbo in the Gaeltacht of Connemara because it was the first access point to the WWW in Ireland.

I ditched my compuserv e-mail account not long after and became digitome@iol.ie on comp.text.sgml

So much has changed since those early days...and yet so much as stayed the same.

Friday, May 20, 2016

From textual authority to interpretive authority: the next big shift in legal and regulatory informatics

This paper : law and algorithms in the public domain from a journal on applied ethics is representative, I think, of the thought processes going on around the world at present regarding machine intelligence and what it means for law/regulation.

It seems to me that there has been a significant uptick in people from diverse science/philosophy backgrounds taking an interest in the world of law. These folks range from epistemologists to bioinformaticians to statisticians to network engineers. Many of them are looking at law/regulation through the eyes of digital computing and asking, basically, "Is law/regulation computation?" and also "If it is not currently computation, can it be? Will it be? Should it be?"

These are great, great questions. We have a long way to go yet in answering them. Much of the world of law and the world of IT is separated by a big chasm of mutual mis-understanding at present. Many law folk - with some notable exceptions - do not have a deep grasp of computing and many computing folk - with some notable exceptions - do not have a deep grasp of law.

Computers are everywhere in the world of law, but to date, they have primarily been wielded as document management/search&retrieval tools. In this domain, they have been phenomenally successful. To the point where significant textual authority has now transferred to digital modalities from paper.

Those books of caselaw and statute and so on, on the shelves, in the offices. They rarely move from the shelves. For much practical, day-to-day activity, the digital instantiations of these legislative artifiacts are normative and considered authoritative by practitioners. How often these days to legal researchers go back to the paper-normative books? Is it even possible anymore in a world where more and more paper publication is being replaced by cradle-to-grave digital media? If the practitioners and the regulators and the courts are all circling around a set of digital artifacts, does it matter any more if the digital artifact is identical to the paper one?

Authority is a funny thing. It is mostly a social construct.  I wrote about this some years ago here: Would the real, authentic copy of the document please stand up?  If the majority involved in the world of law/regulation use digital information resource X even though strictly speaking X is a "best efforts facsimile" of paper information resource Y, then X has de-facto authority even though it is not de-jure authoritative. (The fact that de-jure texts are often replaced by de facto texts in the world of jure - law! - is a self-reference that will likely appeal to anyone who has read The Paradox of Self Amendment by Peter Suber.

We are very close to being at the point with digital resources in law/regulation have authority for expression but it is a different kettle of fish completely to have expression authority compared to interpretive authority.

It is in this chasm between authority of expression and authority of interpretation that most of the mutual misunderstandings between law and computing will sit in the years ahead I think. On one hand, law folk will be too quick to dismiss what the machines can do in the interpretive space and IT people will be too quick to think the machines can quickly take over the interpretive space.

The truth - as ever - is somewhere in between. Nobody knows yet where the dividing line is but the IT people are sure to move the line from where it currently is (in legal "expression" space) to a new location (in legal "interpretation" space).

The IT people will be asking the hard questions of the world of law going forward. Is this just computing in different clothing? If so, then lets make it a computing domain. If it is not one today, then can we make it one tomorrow? If it cannot be turned into a computing domain - or should not be - then why, exactly?

The "why" question here will cause the most discussion. "Just because!", will not cut it as an answer. "That is not what we do around here young man!" will not cut it either. "You IT people just don't understand and can't understand because you are not qualified!", will not cut it either.

Other domains - medicine for example - have gone through this already. Medical practitioners are not algorithms or machines but they have for the most part divested various activities to the machines. Not just expressive (document management/research) but also interpretive (testing,  hypothesis generation, outcome simulation).

Law is clearly on this journey now and should emerge in better shape, but the road ahead is not straight, has quite a few bumps and a few dead ends too.

Strap yourself in.

Monday, May 16, 2016

From BSOD to UOD

I don't get many "Blue Screen of Death" type events these days : In any of the Ubuntu, Android, iOS, Window environments I interact with. Certainly not like the good old days when rebooting every couple of hours felt normal. (I used to keep my foot touching the side of my deskside machine. The vibrations of the hard disk used to be a good indicator of life back in the good old days. Betcha that health monitor wasn't considered in the move to SSDs. Nothing even to listen too these days, never mind touch.)

I do get Updates of Death though - and these are nasty critters!

For example, your machine auto-updates and disables the network connection leaving you unable to get at the fix you just found online....

Grrrrrrrrrrr.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Genetic Football

Genetic Football is a thing. Wow.

As a thing, it is part of a bigger thing.

That bigger thing seems to be this: given enough cheap compute power, the time taken to perform zillions of iterations can be made largely irrelevant.

Start stupid. Just aim to be fractionally less stupid the next time round, and iterations will do the rest.

The weirdest thing about all of this for me is that if/when iterated algorithmic things start showing smarts, we will know the causal factors that lead to the increased smartness, but not the rationale for any individual incidence of smart-ness.

As a thing, that is part of a bigger thing.

That bigger thing is that these useful-but-unprovable things will be put to use in areas where humankind as previously expected the presence of explanation. You know, rules, reasoning, all that stuff.

As a thing, that is part of a bigger thing.

That bigger thing is that in many areas of human endeavor it is either impossible to get explanations - (i.e. experts who know what to do, but cannot explain why in terms of rules.), or the explanations need to be taken with a pinch of post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc salt, or a pinch or retroactive goal-setting salt.

As a thing, that is part of a bigger thing.

When the machines come, and start doing clever things but cannot explain why....

...they will be just like us.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Statistics and AI

We live at a time where there is more interest in AI than ever and it is growing every day.

One of the first things that happens when a genre of computing starts to build up steam is that pre-existing concepts get subsumed into the new genre. Sometimes, the adopted concepts are presented in a way that would suggest they are new concepts, created as part of the new genre. Sometimes they are. But sometimes they are not.

For example, I recently read some material that presented linear regression as a machine learning technique.

Now of course, regression has all sorts of important contributions to make to machine learning but it was invented/discovered long long before the machines came along.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cutting the inconvenient protrusions from the jigsaw pieces

There is a school of thought that goes like this....

(1) To manage data means to put it in a database
(2) A 'database' means a relational database. No other database approach is really any good.
(3)  If the data does not fit into the relational data model, well just compromise the data so that it does. Why? See item (1).

I have no difficulty whatsover with recommending relational databases where there is a good fit between the data, the problem to be solved, and the relational database paradigm.

Where the fit isn't good, I recommend something else. Maybe index flat files, or versioned spreadsheets, documents, a temporal data store....whatever feels least like I am cutting important protrusions off the data and off the problem to be solved.

However, whenever I do that, I am sure to have to answer the "Why not just store it in [Insert RDB name]?" question.

It is an incredibly strong meme in modern computing.