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Background

Humans originate from the Skytree, a tower operated by an impartial AI. On birth, they are sent to their assigned communities, or Communes, where they live out the rest of their lives. Every human is born with, and will die with, a Karma Tracker.


Karma Tracker

The Karma Tracker is an 'organ' that is implanted and interfaces with the human brain, and tracks every action humans do. It is capable of logging all thoughts and emotions of a given human.

The Karma Tracker assigns positive and negative values called 'Karma' based on how 'likeable' or 'unlikeable' a human's action upon the world is to their own Commune. The Skytree system uses the Commune's general thoughts to determine initial Karma values for different actions, then adjusts it over time to become in line with the Commune's expectations.

Whatever Karma values are assigned will be passed to the Skytree system with no exceptions. The Karma values of every member is also anonymous to the other members of the Commune.


Punishment

At the end of every week, the Skytree automatically assigns equivalent punishments to any humans with many negative Karma values, or any large negative Karma values. It does not care about the Karma total, just the individual negative values.

Smaller punishments are doled out automatically, and are self-imposed, allowing the user to fix the problem themselves. They may be fines or warnings. Moderate punishments are similar, though the Skytree may assign another member of the community to help watch over the atonement.

Serious punishments are doled out with a public trial held by an appointed Skypriest (a human with consistently high Karma values, elected to the position), and a jury formed by Commune members. In trials Karma Tracker logs are un-anonymized and used as evidence.

If the human in question does not seek to redress their crime, it will be escalated in order from minor, to major, to serious. Humans that seek to escape from trial for serious crimes are immediately classified as going rogue, and the karma tracker is used as a detonator device.


Question

In such a world, would serious crimes like murder, assault, theft, etc. be greatly reduced?


Other Clarifications

Edit: Just want to point out that all of this is purely hypothetical. I do not personally espouse such a system, I am interested in what happens to the frequency of major crime in this world.

Edit2: Assume that the inhabitants have a similar perception of crime as ours, as well as the punishments.

Edit3: This is a dystopic world run by an autocratic, impartial AI. It is usually a fair assumption that AI that implode people’s brains for disobedience aren’t always the good guys.

Edit4: The AI is neither a god, religion, nor government, its primary use is tracking and punishing major crime and punishment/reformation for minor crime.

Edit5: Yes, I have watched The Good Place and Minority Report. They are excellent, and definitive sources of inspiration for this question, but there are definite differences in implementation between this world and the inspirations, and those differences in how major crime is carried out and prevented are what I am interested in.

If anything, the question is closer in vein to PSYCHO-PASS(itself a Minority Report, Ghost in the Shell, and Bladerunner derivative), a series about how corrupt a civilization can get when the definition of 'crime' is defined by and automated by a human hive-mind, which monitors human emotions and places those whose emotional states are 'at-risk' of committing crime (latent criminals) into mandatory therapy or execution.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 10 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ Do Christians, believing in an all-knowing all-powerful God still commit crimes? That’s your answer $\endgroup$ Sep 11 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ @SebastiaanvandenBroek I’m not convinced it’s that suitable a comparison, given that the Christian god does not dole out punishments for crimes on Earth, nor does He punish serious offenders by imploding their brains to bits. Jokes aside, the Skytree isn’t some kind of deity, but a mechanical system. People are far less likely to worship it in the same way, so a religious implementation wouldn’t work unless the Skytree was mystified and turned into some kind of cult. In that sense, yes, its existence itself wouldn’t be useful in deterring crime for sure. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ Starting a bounty to reward to one of the existing answers for the extra effort put in, and their excellent line of questioning. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ You should watch the "Orville" episode "Majority Rule" (orville.fandom.com/wiki/Majority_Rule) to see some problems with a system like this. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Sep 12 at 9:55

14 Answers 14

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Majority Ideals Doesn't Equate to Morality

How about giving up your seat on the subway? I'm sure there are some we would all agree on. A fit and healthy guy making an elderly woman stand will seem an unlikeable action to many of us. So context is important...but in 1950s America that extended to racial segregation - the majority would have deemed Rosa Parks standing (or, rather, not standing) up for herself as an unlikeable act. Something she would have been punished for under your system.

So the system will perpetuate old fashioned ideas rather than allowing law makers to instigate change. This will lead to more minorities being overlooked and being punished further if they speak out against a system that still benefits the majority.

Its likely that people would break away and create separate, unofficial, communes.

Will it stop murderers?

Depends how you're dolling out your punishments, but if they're through humans (or Skypriests) they still have to catch the culprit first. What is to stop them running away and hiding in an unoffical commune or under the protection of a larger organisation?

I doubt the system would last long, if it does it sounds highly oppressive, but there will almost certainly be a market for people looking to dip out of the system. Crime will still happen.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, especially pointing out the problem of 'tyranny of the majority'. In regards to the criminals, though, they would probably be hunted down quite quickly... they're called karma trackers after all. Who knows whether there are any self-detonation modules available. :S $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 9 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. To look at another example of how this would lead to social stagnation look at same sex relationships. Even 40 years ago when I was a child the large majority where I lived would have considered sexual activity between two men as far more "unlikeable" than a "friendly" bar fight in which people could accidentally sustain brain damage. So now you have a society where consenting adults that differ from society's current mores will always be punished more strongly than violent bullies. $\endgroup$ Sep 10 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ Since you bring up Rosa Parks, you might be interested in the details -- for example, she calmly sat in the Colored section that day. Wikipedia has a decent writeup. $\endgroup$ Sep 10 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ worth considering many murders like most crimes of passion, the criminal has not considered the outcome of their action they are running on pure emotion, so punishment can't stop all murders. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 11 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ Something to consider with your subway analogy that could actually make things worse. How often do we hear stories about someone with an invisible disability not having that acknowledged and being looked down upon for sitting/using something set aside for the disabled. You could have someone that has a valid medical reason to be sitting on a subway but it is not obvious so they end up getting hit with a karma penalty because others see what they did as wrong. If someone takes action to correct it they could get a karma reward due to others seeing their actions as good. $\endgroup$
    – Joe W
    Sep 11 at 14:44
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In a nutshell, many criminals don't think about the potential punishment when carrying out crimes.

So, well thought out crimes, like movie heists, probably*. Passion crimes, like jealousy murders, not at all.

*depends on how likely it is in your system that someone can "disappear" and find refuge out of reach of the Skytree.

As a side note, if you're interested in moral systems based on giving points for actions, have a look at "The Good Place", which goes through a number of pitfalls of that sort of approach. (And the different ways to count points - intention vs result vs principle in particular)

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. Yes, I enjoyed the good place very much. They boiled a lot of the philosophical conundrums related to ethics and presented it in a very digestible format. Definitely applicable in this case, as how the system counts the points could probably never be able to perfectly capture ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Enthu5ed maybe you would like to participate on movies.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/the-good-place , then ? $\endgroup$ Sep 11 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ @BsAxUbx5KoQDEpCAqSffwGy554PSah interesting suggestion. I might head on over if I get a chance, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 2:37
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It depends on what's punished ...

Is having an impure or fleeting thought punished? For example: say I'm at the store, carrying a small item I intend to purchase; if the idea "I could just walk out and nobody would be the wiser" crossed my mind, is that punished? ... what about if I - with no intention of actually stealing the item - look around a bit to see if there are security cameras or people watching and think about where I could hide the item?

Crank that up to higher levels, too: if I think about how I might kill my annoying neighbor (who mows their lawn at 7:00 am on the weekend?!?), is that a serious crime?

If thoughts are punished, there is a 0% chance of "crimes" disappearing.

Everyone will, at some point, have impure or fleeting thoughts. It's entirely possible that some of the most upstanding members of society will have a lot of them (to their credit: refusing to succumb to temptation is surely karmically better than not being tempted in the first place). If thoughts are punished, everyone is going to get those light punishments, which will weaken the threat/stigma of punishment (lots of people get light punishments, which means that light punishments aren't seen as "bad" - as a real-world analogy, consider most crimes that come with a fine of less than, say, $500 - even people who rack up parking tickets are rarely seen as "bad" because of the tickets).

How do extenuating circumstances factor in? Is stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family a punishable offense? Is withholding a loaf of bread from a starving family punishable? ... what about dine-and-dashing if you're broke? ... what about stealing a car to get your injured wife to the hospital? ... what about killing in self-defense?

And, does state of mind matter? If I don't intend to steal the candy bar, but just get distracted and forget I'm holding it 'til I get home (which I can 100% see some of my actually-diagnosed-by-a-real-doctor ADHD relatives doing), is that as bad as intentionally stealing it? ... what if I think I've grabbed my taser but actually grab my pistol and shoot the intruder?

It's easy to see a scenario in which the complexities of thoughts, intent, and extenuating circumstances either overwhelm the system (thus rendering "you got punished" all but meaningless since it's so very easy to suggest that the system got those complexities wrong) or where those complexities are ignored (thus rendering "you got punished" all but meaningless because of a lack of mercy, compassion, and/or nuance in the punishment system).

... and the punishments...

If the punishment for murder is a night in the pokey, very few people will be dissuaded from murder simply to avoid a night in jail; little or no crime is prevented.

If the punishment for littering is death, very few people will be dissuaded from escalating from "my neighbor is annoying; maybe I'll pour some sugar in his lawnmower's gas tank" to "I'll just kill him" simply to avoid the additional punishment - there can be no additional punishment, really - so crime might actually go up (or, at least, the severity of crime).

That's not to say that everybody with an inconsiderate neighbor will become a murderer, just that those who might be inclined to be murderers anyway but are dissuaded from killing by the fear of punishment are apt to be less dissuaded (and possibly more likely to give into their urges, since the difference between "sugar in the gas tank" and "hedge clippers in the heart" is nonexistant).

... but probably not.

In addition to the above, there will always be a market for those who are willing to do the illegal - even if there's a high chance of getting caught and punished - in exchange for power, prestige, wealth, likes, etc..

Consider a terminally-ill individual without any outward sign of being ill. If I offer to give their family \$1 million to kill my lawn-obsessed neighbor, sure most might decline, but some wouldn't. And, I've now "murdered" my neighbor without actually killing anyone and increased my karma by gifting the family of a random stranger $1 million after said stranger passed. Go me.

Unless, possibly, the system is 100% perfect.

How does the system handle the criminally insane? ... or just those with run of the mill mental health issues who might have gone off their meds (or need their meds adjusted), and/or have (for whatever reason) missed some psychotherapy appointments? ... or those who haven't been (properly) diagnosed?

A relative of mine has been clinically diagnosed with a handful of mental health issues, which all feed into one another to varying extents. Not long after a particularly stressful time, something snapped. We were sitting next to each other (as we do frequently); whatever snapped made them think that I was a danger (as near as we can tell now, looking back on the event) and they started hitting me, trying to "get away". I could technically have filed assault and/or battery charges; from a purely legalistic perspective, they did hit me. But: that would have helped nobody, and it wasn't assault or battery in any meaningful sense of the words; it was just someone who desperately needed professional medical help run out the timer on their ability to pretend that everything was status quo. To round out the story: they went in to the psychological wing of the emergency room for a few days, until a bed opened in an excellent in-patient program the hospital offered; they got some meds tweaked and the psychotherapy they needed to get back to actual status quo, and fortunately haven't had a relapse sense.

If the system punished that relative for the "crime" of pretending everything was okay when it really wasn't (and, let's be honest: every single person reading this answer has done so at some point), the system is fundamentally broken and any punishments it hands out are utterly worthless as a measure of the "goodness" of the recipient.

If, however, the system were magic and able to determine correctly which crimes were crimes of passion (which is a whole 'nother kettle of fish), crimes of desperation, crimes of accident (the aforementioned "I forgot I had the candy bar"), not-actually-crimes (my relative didn't assault or batter me, even if their actions met the literal terms spelled out in the legal codes), premeditated crimes, and proxy crimes (that \$1 million payout to the family I offered earlier), then maybe - if the punishment ensured that the offender was no better off than they were before the crime.

How would the offender be better off? If they get to keep the \$1 million they stole from the bank and just have to spend a week in jail, they're probably better off - doubly so if (eg.) they're part of a gang that won't "fire" them for missing a week's work (they didn't miss work; their job that week was to sit in a cell and not cause problems).

Other questions

I have a lot of other questions, a lot of which revolve around what evidence is required to convict someone of a crime. If it's just the karma tracker, how hard is it to fool (or tamper with!) the tracker?

How do conspiracies work? If I chat with my friend about how to knock over the local convenience store with no reason to believe they actually have the intention of carrying out the plan, am I still guilty of something? What if the discussion is (eg.) in the context of a role-playing game?

How are accidents resolved? If I'm roofied but don't fall asleep until I'm driving home, who's responsible for the mailbox I hit? ... what if I just fall asleep because I'm a lot more tired than I thought I was? ... what if I have an unknown medical condition or a medical emergency that causes me to lose control?

What happens if I do something heinous while sleepwalking?

How well can the tracker (etc.?) handle code words and innuendo? ... "I'd like you to take care of my neighbor" could be code for "kill him", but could also just be a request to convince him to wait 'til a more reasonable hour to mow the lawn, or even mow the lawn for him Friday while I'm out at work! ... what if that innuendo is taken the wrong way (if I meant "mow the lawn Friday" but Joey thought I meant "whack him")?

Is pre-crime punished? If the system can detect that I'm actually planning to kill my neighbor - with intent to do so - does it stop me before I can enact my plan?

Further reading.

This reminds me of Minority Report (Philip K. Dick), The Memory of Earth (Orson Scott Card), Gattaca (1997 movie), 1984 (George Orwell), and Isaac Asimov's robot stories. All of those works (and, I'm sure, hundreds of others that I've either forgotten about or haven't experienced) poke at different aspects of this technology/society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hoo. That is a very comprehensive answer, give me a few minutes to answer your clarifications and address your sections. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ Impure thoughts: the Karma Tracker only gives values for actions, not thoughts. You can think about a crime all you want, eg. bribing your neighbor to give you a promotion, but only when you speak about it or actually bribe them will it trigger. And here is where state of mind matters, if you speak to your neighbor about a 'bribe', but it is a joke, the state of mind is factored into that action. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ Where this is extremely important, is that the karma tracker logs not only these points, but the mental and emotional state of the user when the crime happened. This can be used by the judge and jury for serious crimes, allowing for flexibility that the system wouldn't be able to have. Taking your case of the bribe - if someone paid a terminally ill person to commit murder, the trial would be able to use the logs of the terminally ill person to trace down the person who paid them. Emotional states would be available, and the Judge and Jury can then sentence both of them to a punishment. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ However, such a system is far from perfect - if a person goes insane, their thoughts would mean that every action becomes 'unintentional' from their point. Manslaughter would become self-defense, if they really thought it at the time and had no intention. The trial could handle it more properly, but the system wouldn't. People with minority opinions and behaviours like the mentally ill would be consistently punished for not following the Majorities' Commune guidelines. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ But the worst loophole - if a psychopath murders directly, they would be caught. But if they anonymously email and pay someone to do it, they wouldn't. Their control of emotion in handling such a matter would mean the system can't judge this action. Such cases would probably call for detectives of some kind. This is the entire premise for one of my favorite shows - Psycho-Pass. As to your further readings, Minority Report is definitely up there on my list of favorites and is very applicable. I'll have a look at the others as well! Thanks :) $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 13:15
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It would stop most robbery related crimes but not jealousy and vengeance crimes.

Most murders, and many crimes in general are motivated by one of three things- greed, jealousy, and vengeance.

Murdering and assaulting people to take their stuff would be eliminated, since that's almost always regarded as immoral. Jealousy and vengeance may well still happen. It's not super socially accepted to kill your partner because they cheated on you for example, but society tends to view that as much less bad. Same with killing someone because they wronged you.

People would work to mask their crimes as well.

People would quickly learn what the highest impact positive karma actions were, and some would do them to earn karma to mask serious crimes. As such, you'd have respectable members of society building up karma to spend on crimes.

Gangs and regular criminals would be stopped.

Gang members and anyone who encourages regular antisocial activity would quickly get picked up. They would quickly get punished and sentenced.

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    $\begingroup$ One point on your second point of masking - 'the Skytree automatically assigns equivalent punishments to any humans with [... any] large negative Karma values.'. This would prevent some of the more major crimes. (Though there would definitely still exist loopholes: some people may quickly figure out which crimes are just large enough not to be detected!) $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 9 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ Great first point - humans are indeed subject to emotions, and a karma system might not be able to stop those impulses alone. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 9 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ Incidentally this is exactly how the Planetside friend-fire system worked, particularly in the first game: if you played well and didn't accidentally injure teammates, it basically gave you a pass to, occasionally, intentionally kill a teammate now and then. It was actually useful though. Your teammate is clearly hacking/cheating? Eh, I can afford it. Blam. That guy is clearly trying to grief people? Blam. It was a system with faults but definitely cries out to be a Black Mirror episode. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Sep 12 at 20:28
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A Karma "score" is fundamentally incompatible with justice

First, let me illustrate the problem with a simple example.

Imagine that stealing a piece of fruit is -10 Karma, and killing someone is -10,000 Karma.

This week, one person murders somebody, and another person steals an apple cart that holds 1,000 apples. Both of these people will receive the same punishment, because their Karma scores are the same. This is patently absurd.

Another poster wisely noted that there will be sensible knaves who deliberately cultivate good Karma for the express purposes of offsetting crimes they wish to get away with, which means you'll also have someone who sets up a charity for orphans just to acquire the Karma he needs to abduct and rape a fresh victim every couple of weeks.

(Incidentally, this is precisely what is happening when rich or famous people in the real world demand special handling by law enforcement as something they're "entitled" to for having acquired wealth or fame in the first place: their argument is "I did all this good stuff you liked, so I should get a free pass for this unrelated horrific thing I did, and shame on you for even trying to apply the laws to me.")

When you reduce an act to a flat number, you throw away a lot of morally significant information. When it then comes time to pass judgment on individuals, you can no longer appeal to that information. You can't consider factors like the "severity" of the crime, or the harm it caused, or the intent or state-of-mind of the perpetrator, or anything else. All you see is a number. "Both these guys have -10,000 Karma, so I guess we should put them both in prison with the other murderers."

This is perhaps acceptable when we talk about money. People seem to think that it's okay for a lawyer to spend 45 minutes working on something and get paid the same amount as a janitor who works four 8-hour days, because they both end up with $360 in their wallets, and each of them can then go and buy the same e.g. ticket to a Taylor Swift concert. We call that "economic justice."

But we don't accept this crude fungibility when it comes to punishing the guilty, or protecting society from dangerous people. Crimes differ not only in degree but in kind: 1 thrill-kill murder is not equivalent to e.g. 8 car thefts, 3 bank robberies, or 20 child-beatings. Someone who murders people for fun is categorically different from somebody who stole some cars, and it's not a question of adjusting those numbers to the "right" values because this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. It's apples-to-lives, and the difference matters.

The problem with a one-dimensional Karma score is that it blinds you to differences in kind. This will inevitably result in gross miscarriages of justice on a daily basis. No society would tolerate this.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's possible the system could account for stealing the cart as -10 karma, or e.g. -10 for the fruit and -90 for the cart. $\endgroup$
    – deep64blue
    Sep 10 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ I like the philosophy in your answer, however - 'the Skytree automatically assigns equivalent punishments to any humans with [... any] large negative Karma values.'. The Skytree does not care how many good values are done in a week, serious crimes with large values will still bring the member for trial, where they can truly decide whether baking a few cupcakes for Grandma is really enough to offset an assault. Also, from that same phrase, you can realize that the Karma tracker doesn't track one aggregate number, but every crime number. This will deter most 'karma farmers'. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Enthu5ed Sounds like it just changes how you game the system. As anyone who's played with AI will know, all systems are gameable – and humans are even more creative than AI algorithms! $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 10 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 exactly! There will always be people who game the system, that is part of the question. Will the system in place be enough to deter the people who game it from committing serious crime? And people will have to game a system that dynamically changes as it's not just an AI, but other people's perceptions they have to game. I've seen several answers already where it says 'no', for many great reasons, eg. Tyranny of the Majority. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ "Will the system be enough to deter" -- in the real world, most people who commit crimes think (or hope) they will avoid being caught, which dampens the deterrent effects of most legal punishments. If all you care about is deterrence, and you don't care whether the system is driven by "Karma" scores, it may be enough just to set up ubiquitous AI observers simply to record facts for a human-driven justice system. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Sep 10 at 18:53
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The Karma Tracker is Irrelevant

The karma tracker adds points for every time you hold the door open for someone else. It adds points every time you say please and thank you. It adds points every time you bring in free coffee or doughnuts for the office. It subtracts points every time you are saracastic. It subtracts points every time you fart loudly in the office. It subtracts points every time you mention how Sarah Silverman is the secret emperor, vaccines are bad or the Earth is flat.

These are all minor things. But for major crimes it works differently:

Serious punishments are doled out with a public trial held by an appointed Skypriest (a human with consistently high Karma values, elected to the position), and a jury formed by Commune members. Trials are the only case where Karma Tracker logs are un-anonymized.

If the human in question does not seek to redress their crime, it will be escalated in order from minor, to major, to serious. Humans that seek to escape from trial for serious crimes are immediately classified as going rogue, and the karma tracker is used as a detonator device.

This leads to judges who are all good at holding open the door, saying please and thank you, giving out free coffee and doughnuts, and keeping any controversial opinions to themselves. It does not lead to any consistent form of law or sentencing.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point on the judge not being the most competent for their job, if they're only elected for doing good. However, they also have a Jury to decide the final punishment and guilt. And it is not necessarily true that someone with more points did it through making coffee - because they're elected, not selected by how many points, public perception is important. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Enthu5ed Being elected makes it harder to become judge by doing loads of small niceties. But you might still get judges and juries giving wildly different rulings for the same crimes. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Sep 10 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ is that not how many current justice systems work? To alleviate this in our current systems we use past crimes as references to how we should handle current ones. Also, in the US something in Texas something may be judged differently from in California, but it still works, kind of? $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 10 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Enthu5ed I believe the US and maybe other countries too has hundreds and hundreds of laws that tell you what is and what is not a crime, along with which crimes can get which punishments. There are people whose job is to make new laws and change existing ones. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Sep 10 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Enthu5ed In the real world, a judge is not merely a trustworthy person, but a specialist who has a megaton of technical training and experience. The judge's job includes ensuring that proper legal process is adhered to in both letter and spirit, and that trials are conducted in a manner that is honest, consistent with other trials, and consistent with the laws. There's no reason to think that the kindest or even most virtuous person in town is equipped to serve in that role, or, conversely, that you couldn't have an excellent judge who happens to be an obnoxious curmudgeon in her daily life. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Sep 10 at 19:01
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Many people will feel that the negative scores they are assigned are too large, and that the Skytree is an unjust autocrat. If those feelings cause negative scores in themselves, they have a point.

Getting people to behave well by means of inflexible rules has never worked well. That's why justice systems that last allow for flexibility, pardons and the like.

If this system were enforced, it would lead to rebellions, the killing of priests, and general anarchy. It might reduce serious crime for a while, but then it will collapse.

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  • $\begingroup$ But remember that the points people are given by the Skytree come from the general consensus of their community (as mentioned in the question). Would people really feel that they are assigned these values unfairly, if every single person in the community is judged the same way, and could change how these values are assigned dynamically? $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 9 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Enthu5ed: Yes. People often feel that they are special and cannot be judged by those who don't understand them. This is almost universal among children and teenagers. $\endgroup$ Sep 9 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, perhaps, but this is all under the condition that people get enough negative scores to feel upset. This could be similar to how someone in real life might feel guilty over littering, but in this world are doled out some kind of small fine. Can we really assume smaller actions like this will lead to mass rebellion? There have probably been far worse governments that still haven't collapsed. Feel that this is a potential slippery slope. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 9 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ In summary, I'll assume this is more of a frame challenge. This is because your answer can only really be verified if it answers whether 'an AI imposing dynamic community-based punishments for community-defined crimes can cause a rebellion'. I believe we could write an entire question on that point, so for now I'll wait on more answers before evaluating. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 9 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ "If those feelings cause negative scores in themselves, they have a point." Hole in the plot ! They would receive positive karma instead, since it would match what the commune thinks is good : getting rid of this unfair autocraty :p $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Sep 9 at 21:41
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Who Guards the Guardians?

I don't think that the specifics of your 'Karma Tracker' matter as much as who is programming and operating it. Keep in mind that, on September 10th, 2001, the FBI had detailed reports from a flight school operator with military experience that he had a number of students who were very interested in learning to fly commercial transports...but completely uninterested in learning how to land.

If you tell me that it's self-programming and self-correcting, fine. Like the old joke from the '60s about the automated airliner: "This is your automatic Captain speaking. Your plane has been completely automated; no human intervention is required or even possible. Just relax, because nothing can go wrong...can go wrong...can go wrong...."

I really don't think that even God, as I understand Him, would be willing to trust the universe to such a system even though he designed and built it himself. Any lesser being? No chance.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good frame challenge, yes. By our current technology standards this kind of AI is a pipedream. Though for this question we assume the Skytree system is impartial, but can we really guarantee the creators didn’t? Nor can we guarantee it hasn’t evolved one after being used for massive amounts of processing human actions… $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ With so much at stake, if there's anyone who can possibly 'put a thumb on the scales' for their own benefit, they will. $\endgroup$
    – ehbowen
    Sep 11 at 20:11
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Frame Challenge: Is Appendectomy a Negative Karma surgery? Would a surgeon be willing to take the Negative Karma to perform it, especially if the person they performed it on performed it for them?

A lot of the other answers have focused on the Majority -> Morality judgement aspect, but there are actions that could be taken where the Negative Karma assigned to it couldn't prevent it, and could potentially lead to the system applied only to those who wouldn't commit crimes.

Because the Karma Tracker seems to be missing enough information about what it does.

The Karma Tracker is an 'organ' that is implanted and interfaces with the human brain, and tracks every action humans do. It is capable of logging all thoughts and emotions of a given human.

That makes it sound like it's basically a single activity organ, and that removing it wouldn't actually change how humans do those interactions or how the human brain would work.

But it also sounds like it's even more confusing than an appendix as to why it's there. So, for anyone thinking of committing a crime, the obvious workaround is to just remove it.

Which brings up a question the Skytree probably doesn't want the Commune to contemplate when marking where it stands on the Karma scale; how bad is it for someone to perform surgery to remove the Karma Tracker the Skytree uses? Afterall, brain surgery can be really lifesaving if there's a tumor involved, for example, and having someone go through the motions and say that they did, but actually didn't, would likely count as fraud, and be judged accordingly.

Further complicating that is that the Karma Tracker has another aspect of it that seems to align with the Appendix:

If the human in question does not seek to redress their crime, it will be escalated in order from minor, to major, to serious. Humans that seek to escape from trial for serious crimes are immediately classified as going rogue, and the karma tracker is used as a detonator device.

So it basically can burst like an Appendix, and that's a pretty serious medical health issue. So removing it should, from most people's point of view, be a good thing, right? How would they balance the possibility that someone who doesn't currently have any crimes committed undergoing "Karma Tracker Appendectomy", against the slippery slope that afterwards, they might commit crimes without being able to be tracked?

In order for it to work, and actually reliably deter crime, the Karma Tracker needs a much more defined role that makes it essential that humans still keep it, from the moment someone starts performing post mortems on a dead body and goes "What's this?".

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points here. It’s true that removal of a non-essential organ that could harm you would be positive karma, but let me play devil’s advocate for your frame challenge: if the Karma Tracker is interfaced deeply enough with the brain that removing it results in certain death, would it still be positive karma? $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 0:45
  • $\begingroup$ If it's interfaced deeply enough, but doesn't provide additional essential function, it could still be positive karma - for example, for organ transplant or post mortem checks. But there's a possibility it could be not removed safely but disconnected safely, to point it to something that acts like a pacemaker, for example - it's not providing direct value to or a human, so removing the detonation possibility could be positive karma. Could also be considered like a vasectomy or tube tie operation in karma status then. $\endgroup$ Sep 11 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ true, removal of the detonation or certain features. That’s a fascinating possibility for sure. If that could be performed without causing death, certainly, you are correct. The Skytree as defined in the question would have no way to stop it, and it may even be considered positive. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 1:37
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Spending penalties

Individual members of a society do not always have the same views of the relative benefits of various actions or the true costs of various punishments. A specific member of your society has a very strong interest in committing a certain crime and sees the applicable punishment not as a deterrent but simply as the cost of doing business. The fact that they are sure to be caught does not deter the offender, but only factors in as a number in their cost/benefit evaluation.

This sort of scenario is very common in low-stakes disciplinary systems in which there are a large number of fixed, low-intensity penalties for minor infractions and for which there are few, if any, long-term or collateral consequences. For example, when I was in middle school, the penalty for arriving late to class was fixed and could be dealt with fully the same day with no lasting consequences. You would get a minor punishment in class but then it was over. No letter home, no lowered grade, nothing else. Maybe you decided to be late to class so you could spend more time making out with your special someone under the bleachers. Was the penalty a little painful? Maybe. Was it worth it? Totally!

This scenario also shows up from time to time in police procedural dramas. A person murders the person who hurt their child, knowing that they will have to go to prison but truly believing that it is "worth it" and that they will go to prison a hero.

This may also occur based on a person's economic or societal position. A super-rich person may simply not care about a $10 littering penalty and gladly write a check every day so they can just keep on throwing their trash in the street. A criminal disqualification from holding public office may mean nothing, or even a point of pride, to a person whose religion forbids participating in government.

Your world has a problem with people who approach crime like this. To solve it, you need a more personalized approach. If a citizen is willing to accept a one-spank speeding penalty because they value getting there sooner more, then increase the penalty to ten spankings, then 100 spankings, then 500 spankings plus 10 years in prison, and go as high as necessary until you find the penalty that is serious enough to deter the behavior. You may need additional collateral consequences, so offenses that were once just 10 spankings are now 10 spankings and a ten-year disqualification from professional licensure because your expert judicial system has determined that professional licensure is very important to the offender.

In response to Enthu5ed, the system would not need to be a strict scheme of escalating punishments, but could be tailored around what matters to the offender. For example, if a particular citizen values their children above everything else, then they would receive penalties centered around having their children taken away rather than monetary penalties, incarceration, or corporal punishment. An offender who values their classic car above everything else is penalized by having their car scratched by police for every crime they commit. Since the OP's justice system has personal insight into each citizen, this could be a plausible feature.

For more than you've perhaps ever wished to learn about these sort of scenarios, study the so-called Holmesian Bad Man metaphor in law, which describes an entirely amoral person who makes behavioral decisions solely on cost/benefit analyses and avoiding unwanted punishment. For the Bad Man, the question is never "Is stealing wrong?" but "I want this. The penalty for stealing is 10 days in jail and I have a 30% chance of being caught. Is it worth it to steal in this case?".

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    $\begingroup$ Great point. Some people would definitely do a cost-benefit analysis and take the penalty to be a worthy cost for certain crimes. A scaling system might help in this case, but it can’t stop every crime in this category. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 11 at 17:57
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If everything is judged from the perspective of your Commune, murdering an individual in or from another Commune could be deemed a neutral act. Similarly, killing someone in self defense could be a neutral or positive act....but what if that individual was the Commune's only heart surgeon and you're a disposable warehouse worker? I think the Commune would be likely to determine that a net negative act.

If what are logged are 'thoughts' and 'emotions' then training from a young age to substitute an innocuous description for an action and combining that with a suitable emotion or lack thereof may be able to trick an automated processing system. Like labeling people as potatoes and shooting potatoes + lack of emotion = confused Skytree awarding zero karmic merit for loony processing.

Similarly, self-hypnosis could be used to generate thoughts and emotions that justify acts - such as determining the man walking down the street is actually carrying a knife and is about to stab you so you need to shoot him in the face first. You may be deemed insane, but that likely carries a lesser punishment than just shooting someone in the face for money or fun.

I'd also wonder what my reward is for being good. Do I get a payout from those who were naughty? Some silly lottery system where a lucky schmuck wins everything contributed for the week? Could also be Logan's Run style where no one ever actually wins and the funds are just sent....somewhere.

It seems like the system would be more effective if small negative actions were viewed with mitigating factors (you sped in your car but didn't hit anyone - if you had hit someone the penalty would've been multiplied) and also netted against other positives (you stopped at a cross walk for pedestrians, donated time to help someone, etc.) so that you can be an overall good person with some negatives and not just feel like every good deed is wasted.

And what would large positive gestures get you? Save someone from a burning building and get...what? Does the amount change if you're a fire fighter or other first responder (and thus it's your job) vs. if you're an office worker? What if you're an off duty first responder? If you're a pizza delivery dude and ruin the food you were delivering to save someone do you get negative karma points because you didn't feel bad wasting the food while saving someone?

It seems like a more accurate result would be obtained by attempting to correlate records of actions in small areas amongst participants where very extreme emotions are recorded as a way to better identify serious crimes in real time (but what if I'm watching a scary movie...?) and then karma values could be assigned to those involved based on how they are feeling at the time?

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points! Yes, inter-Commune problems can be a big problem. John and I discussed how in fact inter-Commune war could even lead to positivekarma for crimes against a person from a different commune. Luckily the world physically bounds people to their communities, but definitely something to consider for later. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ And yes, you are the first to question what happens when people actually do something good! I left out the rewards to keep the question lean, but I think most people forget about that point, and immediately jump to assume the system would instantly cause mass rebellions. How can we design a dystopian system if there aren’t also beneficiaries to balance out the (rightfully) disgruntled rebels? $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ Also, your point about a heart surgeon vs a warehouse worker… tbh I hadn’t even considered such a horrific situation. I designed the system as dystopic, but never intended this world building system to differentiate between people by caste, status, race, or beliefs. If it did… it would be terrifying because it would only serve to amplify a community’s majority prejudices. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 10:43
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Sociopaths become the most coveted assassins in the world

I apologize for saying it, but you're treating all human response as equal... they're not. Simplifying a bit,1 sociopaths are both less attuned morally and almost (in the worst cases, completely) incapable of emotionally connecting with other people.

In other words, your karma tracker is just about useless on a sociopath, because they don't care. They can't care. There's no negative emotion to register.

Consequently, they become the most sought-after assassins on the planet, because while crimes of passion2 would be fundamentally eliminated, planned crimes by people with no vested emotional interest — and therefore crimes facilitated by those in a way that minimizes vested emotional interest — can still be committed.

That's good for you! No system can be perfect. And it's the imperfections that make for a good story.

Conclusion

No. It will decrease, but not disappear. Whether specifically considering my suggestion of using sociopaths or by some other means, never underestimate the ability of humanity to find a way to circumvent a limitation. Like the sniper from Team Fortress 2 says...

'cuz at the end of the day, long as there's two people left on the planet, someone's gonna want someone dead.


1OK, simplifying to to a point where angels weep.

2You do know that your premise, your question, everything you're talking about, was wonderfully considered in the movie Minority Report, right? They even go through a plausible condition of how to circumvent the method derived to stop all major crime. Might be worth watching.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, well structured and points out one of the potential loopholes in the system. You are right that it is definitely a problem that the system tries to homogenize a community’s reactions to crime. How could the system possibly evaluate a case where a sociopath ‘jokingly’ contacts someone terminally ill to convince them to perform crime? $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ As to some other points… you point out I am treating human response as equal, and I want to strongly assert that my question is in no way related to my beliefs on how law systems should be implemented! I have friends and even family who are neurodivergent, and I see firsthand the effects some majority-implemented laws have on them. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ And as a final comment, yes! Minority report is one of my all-time favourite movies. This question is centred at designing an impartial AI-based system for a dystopia, and I wanted to find specific loopholes and understand exactly how crime would be effected for this specific scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 10:26
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Mental Health Issues

They may be reduced alright but they are very unlikely to disappear. You're underestimating how much crime is committed by people with mental health issues, not to mention people committing crime out of despair.

It would have only minimal impact on crimes of passion which I'm guessing make up a large chunk of the violent crimes. Do you think mass-shooters would give a fiddlers about their karma score? What about drug fuelled crimes?

I think this would probably have the biggest impact on minor crime! The type of thing people think they can get away with or people disobeying laws they don't respect - I can no longer get a free chocolate bar when the shop-keeper isn't looking, and it's not convenient for me to speed in my car. (Yes I know speeding isn't necessarily a minor crime given the possible consequences but you know what I mean).

As for major crime - it would likely have the biggest impact on organised crime, which I suppose includes drug dealing which itself would reduce drug-related crimes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great points, I appreciate how you mention a few of the categories of crime that may be affected. Indeed, many of the major crimes in those categories are unlikely to disappear, unless we adopt minority report-like procedures to stop them before they happen. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 12:06
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Being watched doesn't matter to some people

Many people who believe God is watching their every action and judging them accordingly still commit great evils. There's no reason to believe it would be any different if government surveillance and AI performed that role.

And following the thread of divine judgement, a points system is the entire premise of The Good Place, and it is discovered to be extremely unjust and unmerciful because of how complicated the modern world is. Following such a system to a radical conclusion leads one to believe that people are downright awful because they make daily decisions that unknowingly are tied to abuse and suffering somewhere else in the world. Does buying a chocolate chip muffin containing chocolate chips made with slave labor affect your point total?

People are also generally quite bad at following rules, no matter how well-intentioned or correct they are. Everyone speeds and runs red lights from time to time, masking compliance is below 10% on NYC transit, people jaywalk all over the place, etc...

I think the more likely end result of such a system would be a world where everyone is plagued by constant anxiety of being dinged for minor infractions. If you jaywalk enough times, your point total shows the same as a murderer, which is obviously absurd. You've created a dystopia of constant anxiety, not a utopia free of crime.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your answer is not particularly applicable to this question. The AI is not some godly being 'watching people', and neither is it a government of any sort. It is a system that doles out punishment in congruence to the severity of crime. The AI also "does not care about Karma total, just the individual negative values", so The Good Place scenarios of totals aren't applicable. Please read section - Punishment in the question for more clarity. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Sep 12 at 17:18

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