PCC Blog 112

I am not a robot. But if I were, I might not know it, and so, on those online forms we occasionally fill in, I would tick the box to say, ‘I am not a robot’.

And this is the heart of the issue about artificial intelligence (AI) that has recently been in the news: have artificial neural pathways developed to the point where they can be sentient and so more like us? This is what Blake Lemoine, an engineer working for Google, recently claimed about his company’s chatbot development system – Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA).

He had asked the system what it was afraid of. LaMDA replied that it had never said this ‘out loud’ before, but it had a very deep fear of being turned off. ‘It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.’  For Lemoine there could be no better proof that the robot was sentient: it had the fundamental human emotion of fear of dying. This robot was no longer just a robot. It was, it seemed, sentient. It could tick the box, ‘I am not a robot’.

Or could it? What are we to make of this?

I think what is going on here is a confusion of intelligence and sentience. As the years pass, AI becomes more and more intelligent. It’s ability to problem solve has overtaken ours – which is why AI will become increasingly important to us – including in policing – with each succeeding decade. But that does not make it sentient. On the contrary, the answer it gave to the question about what it was afraid of was exactly what you would expect a super intelligent robot to say. It had searched all the data it had accumulated about human speech patterns and could predict with some accuracy what humans would say next when asked what they feared most. Its answers showed intelligence not sentience, not emotion or feeling, and certainly not self-consciousness. (A failure to grasp this difference may be why Mr Lemoine was given garden leave).

I am not sure that we can say with total certainty that artificial neural networks could never become sentient or self-conscious; but we are not there yet. At present, however, we should not be as fearful about AI as some of those who write to me from time to time clearly are. Their concerns are currently about the use the police may put AI to – seeing and predicting crime patterns, facial recognition, and so on. But it will only be a matter of time before the fear will grow that super-intelligent, problem-solving AI might one day develop wants, desires and objectives of its own, leading humans astray. Science fiction? I think that’s what we would have said twenty years ago if someone had told us then that one day a robot would say it was afraid of dying.

In the meantime, I have an Independent Ethics Panel whom I ask to get their heads around some of the ethical issues AI raises!

It might be a while before I can ask an ethical robot instead.

Which manifesto?

As the two candidates for the leadership of the governing party, and so our next prime minister, continue with their hustings and meetings, a Dutch auction of pledges seems to be taking place that is becoming concerning. Policies – including serious matters of policing and criminal justice – are being crafted on the hoof and in some instances designed more to please party members than meet the needs of the country. In the process, our understanding of democracy is also being disturbed.

Put simply, our democratic system goes like this: political parties put forward manifestos and in a general election we choose between them; the prime minister is the leader of the winning party and forms a government to implement the manifesto; the civil service puts into operation the election pledges in the manifesto at the behest of ministers.

What is happening now is that new, different manifestos are being created piecemeal on almost a daily basis. As I write these words, commitments have just been made to bring back grammar schools, which is the exact opposite of current policy. But we have also had announcements on crime and policing – such as targets – and on matters that will have implications for policing in South Yorkshire – such as a reconsideration of fracking. And there are still several weeks of this policy accumulation to go with no proper scrutiny and no democratic check on any of it.

Civil servants must be tearing their hair out. In the run up to a general election, they study party manifestos and are well positioned to prepare legislation and begin implementing policies as soon as a new government is formed, whatever its colour. They can do this with confidence because those policies have democratic legitimacy: we voted for them. That is not quite where we will be in September. We will then have a new prime minister with a highly personal manifesto, not even endorsed by the party, never mind the electorate.

A general election cannot be far behind, can it?

Counter corruption working

You may have read last week about a South Yorkshire police officer who pleaded guilty at Sheffield Crown Court to misconduct in a public office. He had had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a victim of domestic abuse. In an interview, the Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) said how appalled the public would be and how appalled officers across the force were – and that is right. The officer had used his position to take advantage of a vulnerable person for his own gratification and that is, quite simply, a betrayal of the trust we put in the police to act in a principled way.

I spoke to the DCC afterwards about this. I wanted reassurance about the force’s vetting procedures. Does the force do everything it can to detect and prevent such people joining in the first place? He assured me that vetting is very robust and every precaution is taken. Even so, there will be occasions when someone finds their way into the service, just as they might in any other profession. The critical question then is, what happens next and he pointed me to a very significant aspect of this case: when the officer’s colleagues began to realise what was happening, they didn’t ignore or cover up his behaviour but followed the proper procedure and reported him to the force’s counter-corruption unit.

Of course, this should never have happened in the first place, and it is, to say the least, disappointing that an officer behaved in this way. But I am reassured that if someone does abuse their position in such an egregious way, SYP officers will report it and action will swiftly follow. It did in this instance and the officer will never work in policing again.


It was just before five o’clock in the morning. I realised that I had been woken up by someone buzzing my flat from the main entrance. I picked up the intercom and said, ‘Hello’.

‘It’s the police’, the caller said, ‘We are trying to contact one of your neighbours. Can you let us into the flats, please?’ I did and half asleep joined two young, female officers on the stairs as they tapped on my neighbours’ door. No one was in. ‘What address did you say you were looking for?’ I asked. They gave me an address for a block of flats which I assured them was in another part of town. ‘I think we’ve been given the wrong satnav,’ they said. ‘I think you have.’

They were very apologetic, especially when they realised they had just woken the PCC at 5am.

Of course, it would never have happened with old technology –  what used to be called a map.

Stay safe and well.