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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Laptop is cyber judge and jury
Brazilian police
Brazilian police at a protest
An artificial-intelligence program called the Electronic Judge is dispensing justice on the mean streets of Brazilian cities.

The program is installed on a laptop carried by a roaming human judge and helps to assess swiftly and methodically witness reports and forensic evidence at the scene of an incident. It then issues on-the-spot fines and can even recommend jail sentences.

I know that this is a little bit different, but it works

Judge Pedro Valls Feu Rosa
The software is being tested by three judges in the state of Espirito Santo. It is part of a scheme called Justice-on-Wheels, which is designed to speed up Brazil's overloaded legal system by dealing immediately with straightforward cases.

Most people are happy to have the matters sorted out on the spot, says the program's creator, Judge Pedro Valls Feu Rosa, who sits in the state's Supreme Court of Appeals. He adds that the idea is not to replace judges but to make them more efficient.

Pure logic

After police alert the rapid justice team to minor accidents, they can be on the scene within 10 minutes. Most cases require only simple questions and no interpretation of the law - the decision-making process is purely logical, Judge Feu Rosa claims in New Scientist magazine.

The program, written in the Visual Basic language, presents the judge with multiple choice questions, such as "Did the driver stop at the red light?" or "Had the driver been drinking alcohol above the acceptable limit of the law?"

Electronic Judge
The Electronic Judge asks questions . . .
These sorts of questions need only yes or no answers, says Judge Feu Rosa: "If we are concerned with nothing more than pure logic, then why not give the task to a computer?"

He notes that the program gives more than a simple judgement: it also prints out its reasoning. If the human judge disagrees with the decision it can simply be overruled.

He admits, however, that some people who have been judged by the program do not realise that they have been tried by software.

Electronic Judge
. . . . and then delivers judgement.
It could be some time before a similar system takes the place of an English court. "It would have to satisfy the authorities that it was absolutely foolproof first," says a spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's office, which oversees courts in England and Wales.

But it could be put to use in the US, where Judge Feu Rosa says he is in discussion with insurance companies to set up a mobile system to resolve disputes over traffic accidents.

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