Can you sue an artificially intelligent machine?

The Herald reports:

A Paris court has convicted US search engine giant Google and its chief executive Eric Schmidt of defamation over results from its “suggest” function, a French legal affairs website has revealed.

The new function, which suggests options as you type in a word, brought up the words “rapist” and “satanist” when the plaintiff’s name was typed into the search engine, legalis.net reported.

The court concluded that the search engine’s linking his name to such words was defamatory.

A Google spokesman told AFP by email that they would be appealing the ruling.

The statement said that the Google Suggest function simply reflected the most common terms used in the past with words entered, so it was not Google itself that was making the suggestions.

Now this is interesting, Google are correct that they are not manually making the suggestions. But a machine they programmed is. Where does the accountability for the suggestions it makes lie? You can’t sue a machine, or in the future maybe you can?

But does this mean that a machine that is artificially intelligent and makes money for you really makes money for itself? And if it gets sued then the money that it has made can be used to pay court costs? Can a machine be represented in court by a lawyer?

Voluntary Students’ Association Membership Bill Reported Back – The good, the bad and the missing

Yesterday, the Education & Science Select Committee reported back on the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill.

The full report from the Select Committee is here.

So firstly the bad: It seems inevitable that students’ associations in New Zealand will become voluntary. Unless a Labour government is elected next year and a repeal is rushed through, in 15 months time compulsory students’ associations will be no more. Once they are voluntary I doubt that any future government will return them to being compulsory.

And the good: The bill is nowhere near as bad or as nasty as Australia, the bill allows for universities to collect fees at enrolment, it sets out clear mechanisms for complaints, and while changing the structure of associations will not kill them (if associations are smart and work with the changes).

And the missing: The bill repeals the current definition of a students’ association and fails to replace it. This is a minor technicality but should be fixed.

The actual details of the bill:

The bill repeals the following sections of the Education Act 1989:

  • Section 171(2)(e) which defines student membership of university councils. However, it is replaced with a requirement that the university council conducts an election for up to three student representatives. This is much better than repealing all student representation on councils. This means that no longer will the students’ association President be guaranteed a seat at the council. Although they are likely to be elected by the students to the council as those who are involved in students’ associations will also be most likely to vote in council elections.
  • Section 229A, 229B, and 229C. These sections currently lay out what constitutes a students’ association (missing from the new bill), how membership fees are collected, how to object, how to vote to change from compulsory to voluntary.

The bill inserts new sections covering:

  • Undue influence, a person cannot pressure a student into becoming a member of the association, not becoming a member, or leaving the association. This clause is good because it sets out clear requirements for both sides. The following section details how a complaint about undue influence is handled by the university council. Furthermore the council has powers to dismiss a complaint if it is not on reasonable grounds. This will stop time wasting and political grandstanding by those who hate students’ associations altogether.
  • Membership fees, students’ associations can continue to collect membership fees. Furthermore universities can collect membership fees on behalf of associations at enrolment. Students’ associations can also charge fees to non-members for services they use. All of this is simple, straightforward and a good working model.
    However, one issue I have with this is the ability in the bill for councils to withhold funds if they believe that a students’ association is not complying with its constitution. This could end up in a massive spat between the university and the association if someone accuses it of not following its constitution on political grounds rather than actual problems. There needs to be some form of dispute resolution if a council withholds fees and the students’ association disagrees with the reasoning of the council in doing so.

I think this version of the bill is workable and while not something that any students’ association wants it is fair to both sides of the political argument. The only major technical flaw in the bill is the missing definition of a students’ association. The current bill has clause 229A(b)

The students association that, at the commencement of this section, is recognised by the council of the institution as being the institution’s students association for the purpose of representation on the council, is the students association at that institution for the purposes of section 171(2)(e), this section, and sections 229B and 229C.

This bill needs a similar clause maybe reading:

The students association that, at the commencement of this section, is recognised by the council of the institution as being the institution’s students association for the purposes of section 171(2)(e), this section, and sections 229B and 229C.

This prevents multiple students’ associations or rouge groups claiming to be an institution’s students’ association and rather has the council spell it out.


Footnote: I have used compulsory rather than universal in describing current membership of students’ associations as this is the same word as used in the current Education Act.

People not criminals, freedom not detention

One of the fundamental rights of the west is the idea of freedom. Political freedom, personal freedom, religious freedom, cultural freedom. However, it seems if you come from the east in order to gain your freedom in Australia you must first be treated worse than the prisoners who founded this nation.

Throughout this week there have been a number of protests and problems at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Western Sydney. This week’s problems began with the suicide of a Fijian earlier this week before spreading to protests from Sri Lankans and then Chinese asylum seekers. However, in the past month there have been protests and problems at detention facilities in Darwin and asylum seekers have once again become a political football.

The Australian Government’s response these problems is both predictable and wrong. The SMH earlier this week reported:

Julia Gillard will send the Immigration Minister to East Timor in spite of a warning from the head of a government advisory group that incidents of self-harm at Villawood detention centre are beginning to spiral out of control.

The Prime Minister is forging ahead with the so-called ”East Timor solution” after speaking to her counterpart in that country, Xanana Gusmao, about building a regional processing centre for asylum seekers.

The problem of course with this is it does not solve any problem and only makes conditions for these people worse, by shifting them to a country that is not a signatory to declarations on treatment of refugees and the like and therefore creating more problems and treating these people even more like animals.

A few weeks ago another article in the SMH looked at the treatment of asylum seekers last time they were processed off-shore:

…everyone left on Manus and Nauru was gradually brought here.

Some rotted on the islands for more than five years; some went mad waiting; but in the end, the largest single group of people fed through the Pacific solution ended up where they were always heading: Australia.

It’s a unique ambition: no other country on earth has managed its refugees this way.

This is what happened last time: Australia spent about a billion dollars processing 1637 boat people on Manus and Nauru. (Do the maths: it’s a horrifying $600,000 per head.)

The the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, tight-lipped and diplomatic, is understood to be appalled by the prospect of going through all this again. The closing of the Nauru camp a few years ago was welcomed by a UNHCR spokeswoman as ”the end of a difficult chapter in Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers”.

Now it’s on again, backed by both government and the opposition. For those of a Machiavellian turn of mind, failing to find anywhere to resettle the refugees we process in some offshore dependency is frankly all to the good. The detour to Nauru was never, in itself, much of a deterrent to people smugglers. What helped kill the trade was leaving refugees to rot there for years.

We can stop the boats. That’s the ambition of both sides of politics. And it isn’t hard if we are willing to be cruel. We can order the navy to force them back to Indonesia – operations the navy loathes – or send their human cargoes off to island prisons for indefinite detention.

Those strategies work. But they leave a humane country facing a hard question: how brutal are we willing to be?

Earlier this week The Gruen Transfer had the subject of their “The Pitch” segment to be on so called “Boat People”, it is a good watch and really hammers home just how bad Australia treats people who are not from the west.

Auckland Council Elections – Where My Ticks Went

It has just taken me an hour and 20 minutes to decide who to vote for in the elections for the new Auckland Council. I tried my best to read all the candidate blurbs and make an informed choice. I did not follow a particular party but instead judged each candidate on their vision and experience. And here is where my votes went:

Auckland Mayor: Len Brown.
I chose to vote for Brown to strategically stop John Banks from winning. My first preference was for Andrew Williams but the chances of him winning are so slim that I do not want to waste my vote.

Auckland Council – Waitemata and Gulf Ward: Rob Thomas.
It is likely that Mike Lee will win this seat, however, of the six candidates, I chose Thomas as he appears to have the best vision for Auckland and is not an old politician but rather a fresh face.

Auckland Council – Waitemata Local Board:

  • Anna Booth
  • Jesse Chalmers (City Vision)
  • Shale Chambers (City Vision)
  • Christopher Demsey (City Vision)
  • Rohan Evans
  • Bruce Kilmister (City Vision)
  • Rob Thomas

In my local board my votes went primarily to the left. However, I did not select every City Vision candidate, instead I chose independents who would bring a good mix of skills to the table as well as some experienced old hands.

Auckland District Health Board:

  1. Helen Gaeta
  2. Edward Saafi (Citizens and Ratepayers)
  3. Jo Agnew (City Vision)
  4. Judith Bassett (Citizens and Ratepayers)
  5. Moira Macnab
  6. Ian Ward (Citizens and Ratepayers)
  7. Jeanette Elley (City Vision)

My votes for the ADHB was split across both the left and the right. I chose candidates who have experience in the health system not those who are there for politics or business reasons.

The lost art of reading

Due to it being students’ association election season, over the past two weeks I have been talking to a few people about student politics. In particular how to debate, articulate a point of view and campaign. During these discussions I have explained that one of the key methods of articulating a point is to use references from common culture, and in particular with debates, you often quote literature with a slight spin. However, from these discussions it has become clear just how few people these days are up to play with what I would consider well known texts, such as: Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.

This is rather sad, but it gets worse. On Tuesday night I saw the movie adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began. Out of the four people I saw it with I was the only one who had read the book (indeed the whole series) as a child. Last year, Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain was also adapted into a movie and again few people had read the book. What is happening? Sure one could argue the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight are providing the next generation with the reading and imagination skills they need. However, I think there is more at play here than just a generational gap. The likes of Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare and less so Narnia are full of nonsense verse and other wonders of English. This is missing from modern texts. Furthermore there is nothing better than falling down a rabbit hole, exiting your imagination through a cupboard and then pricking yourself to make sure you still bleed.

Post high school I am reading less Fiction and more non-fiction, mainly popular science and sociology type books. However, the key is I still read. I also read blogs and way too many status updates on Facebook and Twitter. However, the digital environment is not a replacement for books and is a great time waster which I believe is collectively lowering our literature IQ. Last week I purchased a novel, the first novel I have bought in a very long time. However, I had to buy it because the author is a good friend of mine. I am referring to The Fallen by Ben Sanders. Ben is a 3rd year, civil engineering student and at just 20 years of age has written an adult crime novel and subsequently gone number one on the best-sellers list in NZ.  What strikes me most about the book is not the story, hell it is good and you should buy it, but the dedication at the start:

“This book is dedicated to my parents who always made me read.”

Isn’t it time we all started to read again, not only it provides us with an escape from real life; it also improves our imagination, understanding and all round communication skills. Plus it provides us with new quotes to famously spin in the future.

The one certain thing about NZUSA: Dissatisfaction.

In the Otago Daily Times today there is an article about both Otago Polytech and Otago University Students’ Associations withdrawing from the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA).

The quoted reasons for withdrawing are:

OPSA president Meegan Cloughley proposed that OPSA withdraw, saying she did not think OPSA was not getting value for its annual subscription of $31,000.

She believes the NZUSA was not spending income wisely – overspending on administration costs and underspending on student activities and campaigns.

NZUSA had also been slow to respond to concerns or provide up-to-date information on expenditure and financial controls, she said.

The Otago University Students Association (OUSA) has also indicated it may withdraw from the NZUSA because of concerns over expenditure, financial accountability and value for money.

OUSA’s annual subscription is more than $100,000 – more than one quarter of NZUSA’ total annual income.

OUSA’s draft budget for next year does not include an allocation for NZUSA fees.

Two years ago when I was president of the Albany Students’ Association (ASA) I recommended that ASA withdraw for very similar reasons:

After serious concerns over the direction, focus and performance were raised of the national students’ association – NZUSA at the recent conference in Dunedin, the ASA Executive Committee is seeking feedback from students at Albany as to whether or not to withdraw from the organisation in protest.

“We are seeking direct feedback from our members, many of whom probably don’t realise that they pay a levy indirectly through the ASA budget to support an organisation in the opinion of the Executive is failing to focus on its core business of representing all students and is instead involved in internal politics between associations and spending too much time and money on small subgroups who pander up to the organisation,” says ASA President, Brad Heap.

“NZUSA have a vital part to play in NZ’s political realm and were paramount in achieving interest free student loans, they also provide training to association executives. However the question needs to be asked is can the $40k a year we put into this organisation be better spent? We could run our own training a lot cheaper and use the residual funds to increase funding to groups on campus. We believe in the ideals of NZUSA but if the organisation is not focussing on its core business should we continue to be involved?”

Satellite Issue 15, 2008

At the same time University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) withdrew after less than year’s membership of the national body.

Is the national body in crises? Or has year after year of bad practices caused systematic problems in the organisation?

Two years ago were arguing for changes and it appears that nothing has changed. NZUSA has a vital role to play in advocating for students in New Zealand. But they need to get back to their core business of doing so.