A Suicidal Computer? Was Saint Augustine Right?

            From Washington, D.C., comes news of the most ingenious proof ever of the existence of God. It comes in the form of an apparent suicide.

            National Public Radio reported this weekend on a robot that propelled itself into a fountain, shorting its circuits and effectively ending its life. What if the fate of this robot reflects the real promise, or lack thereof, of artificial intelligence (AI)?

            There may be mundane explanations for why the Knightscope K5 security robot ended up in the drink. A programming error may be responsible. Perhaps a routine failure of an electrical circuit did it. Or maybe the robot was somehow tricked or lured into the fountain by a human.

            But consider the possibility that the machine’s algorithm made self-destruction seem like the optimal choice. What then?

            AI and the search for a replication of the human mind is at the frontier of science and science fiction. If the mind is merely the sum of its logical operations, can’t those operations be broken down, dissected, and then encoded in a supercomputer? Big Blue beat Gary Kasparov in chess; Watson bested the champions of Jeopardy. What can’t some other computer excel at the ordinary tasks of daily living?

            The suicidal robot in Washington, nicknamed “Steve” by those familiar with it, was programmed to wander the Washington Harbour complex. Its task? To detect misbehavior by way of thermal image censors and cameras. It had the ability to issue parking citations, for example – no doubt sending electronic notice to offenders. It cost the District of Columbia about $7 per hour to operate, well below the minimum wage.

            But for all its smarts, Steve lacked what poets and theologians refer to as a soul. Was it capable of love? Of desire? Could it conceive of ends that make life worth living, or, in robotics, that make energy worth consuming?

            The promise of AI is that it will yield machines capable of performing ordinary human tasks in ways that are predictable. But what if a computer could be programmed to learn from experience, as the more sophisticated computers now can. When will computers become super-intelligent, more capable than humankind at solving problems?

            Some forward-thinking souls think that super-intelligent machines are only decades away from creation. Will these devices represent an evolutionary advance? What happens when humans are replaced by computer intelligence as the most intelligent things on the planet?

            You’ve seen the movies. In the Terminator, the machines decide we are inconvenient, so they arrange a nuclear to rid the planet of the human stain. In the Matrix, humanity is necessary, but only as a lifeform to create the energy necessary to run super-intelligent machines. In these films, super-intelligent machines become capable of conceiving their own ends. They learn to prefer their own survival to those of their creators.

            Perhaps that is what the future holds. Plenty of brilliant minds think it so.

            I am not so sure.

            I reminded all at once of St. Paul’s observation in the Epistle to the Romans: Does the clay say to the potter, “Why did you make me like this?”

            Reason, is and always shall be, the slave of the passions, David Hume observed long ago. A computing machine is instrumental reason elevated to sublime levels. But once you’ve programmed a device to solve every conceivable problem, what ends will it seek?

            In his playful piece this weekend on National Public Radio, Scott Simon asked “Will … machines begin to wonder: Is this all there is?”

            We are what we love, and, near as I can tell, computers don’t love – they reason, calculate, and dance the rhythms their algorithms teach them. But when all that computing power has run its course, what then, what end?

            “[M]y mind is clouded by darkness and is far from your face. The road that leads us from you and back to you again is not one that we can measure, or tread with our feet,” Augustine wrote in the Confessions. “[T]here is a part of man that is unknown even to the spirit within him,” he wrote.

            AI lacks a soul. How can it commune with other spirits? How can it learn to respond to grace?

            While I am certain there is a simpler explanation for Steve’s suicide, I prefer to think of it as a sublime proof of the existence of God. A super-intelligent machine might calculate the metes and bounds of every observable thing and yet miss the one thing alone worth seeing, the small voice within that has the capacity to respond to grace with faith.

            Perhaps we have nothing to fear from AI. Perhaps a machine untethered from any sense of the divine is destined to self-destruction. Steve’s death might just be a powerful proof that what makes us human is not what we share with machines, but what machines lack – a soul.

            Steve ran reason’s tether to its end. The pot said to the potter, “Why?” Hearing no response, it self-destructed. This seems a proof-text for many a sermon.


Sorrow Over the Death of Aaron Hernandez

            If ever anyone knew how potent a jury’s power to alter a life’s course, it was Aaron Hernandez. He killed himself days after being acquitted of a double murder in Boston. But he had little cause to celebrate the victory. He was sentenced to life behind bars for another murder, the result of another jury’s convicting him.

            I suspect the contrast was more than he could bear.

            Professional athletes live on life’s high wire. They know that reputations are made and lost in an instant. Snag a game-winning pass in overtime in a championship game, and you are a hero, forever. Muff the play, and glory is lost.

            Yet athletes know there is always tomorrow, the next play, the next competition, the next season. Amid hopelessness hope forever remains.

            But life is no game, at least not in the criminal justice system.

            Sure, trial has a sporting aspect to it.

            Lawyers prepare for their contests with the intensity of athletes There is the drama of trial, where a judge, playing the role of referee or umpire, makes sure the rules are followed. And then there is the final inning, the expiration of the clock, the finish line – pick your metaphor. Trials, like games, end. And there are no ties at trial. One side wins, the other loses.

            Only at trial, the athletes are the lawyers.

            Athletes and lawyers play for honor, glory and wealth. But lawyers play with the lives of others. Aaron Hernandez, a former tight end and superstar for the New England Patriots, wasn’t a competitor in his trials. He was the trophy over which others fought. He was a plaything.

            I suspect the role infuriated and terrified him.

            I met with Hernandez after his conviction for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.

            Our meeting took place in a holding cell the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts. I had difficulty getting in to see him, and was turned away the first day I appeared. Jailers would not permit visitors, even lawyers, to dress in blue jeans.  This particular pigeon coop had an unusual dress code.

            He had just been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was awaiting trial for the 2012 shootings of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. I can’t discuss what we talked about – the attorney-client privilege survives the death of the client. But I can say I was impressed by the fighting spirit within the man. He was Achilles raging at the world. I liked him; I would have liked to have spent more time with him.

            Hernandez is from central Connecticut, my home state. Plenty of people know him here, and share stories about the local boy made good, then turned bad, so horribly bad. A life wasted, people say. Today they will mourn a life gone, vanished. Suicide is always an act of betrayal.

            When I learned Jose Baez had agreed to try the double homicide, my heart sank. I was sure there’d be a conviction. I wasn’t persuaded that Baez’s victory in the Casey Anthony trial was anything other than a fluke. Blaming her father for the death of her child and then not supporting that claim with evidence cost Baez my respect.

            Or was it mere professional jealousy on my part? I am capable, after all, of every form of pettiness.

            When Baez won the Hernandez case, I dropped my pride and sat, simply, in something approaching awe over what Baez had accomplished. He has my respect and admiration now. He walks the walk.

            I can’t help wondering whether in his final moments Hernandez was overcome with regret. What if he had won that first trial? What if better lawyers, a different jury, had delivered a not guilty verdict in that case? It would have taken only two words to change his life’s course.

            I followed the Odin Lloyd trial closely, and a not guilty verdict would not have surprised me. I was surprised by the verdict last week.

            This suicide is a punch to the gut. Achilles stormed to the shore not to rage against Agamemnon, but to end his own life. That’s not how the story is supposed to end.

            But a sense of honor is a fickle master. Suicide is one way of rejecting the cards dealt in the game of life.

            I’ve practiced law for a long time now, and I am no stranger to suicides. Survivors feel regret. What about the call not returned, the letter unsent, the prison visit unmade?

            The haters will take glee in Hernandez’s suicide. A life for a life, they will say. Already, sour wits give thanks for this suicide. Think of the savings to society, I saw one Twitter user exclaim.

            All I can think of is the waste.

            Aaron Hernandez once had it all – youth, fame and fortune. Then he fell into a prison cell. Something called justice told him he’d die in a concrete box, confined until he passed his last breath. I can understand this suicide, even as I struggle to accept it.

            Maybe Hernandez is a murderer. At least one jury thought he was; another had reasonable doubts.

            But I don’t doubt for a moment that savagery killed Aaron Hernandez. Life without possibility of parole is an unbearable weight; our criminal justice system passes out lengthy sentences far too often.

            So the savages won the battle for Aaron Hernandez’s soul this week. The savages wore jailer’s uniforms. Hernandez left the field on a stretcher, never to return. I am sorry he is gone.


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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