This world has the following characteristics:

  • Futurist world where death is already cured and our bodies are full of nanomachines that improve us.
  • These nanomachines record everything we do. Ex. Steps walked, hours sleeping, people killed, farts thrown, money donated, smiles, current height, known languages ​​...

  • The statistics are public and global. You can look at them freely.

  • You can see them at any time, thanks to the augmented reality.
  • The statistics are numerical, there are no audio-visual recordings or descriptions of the facts.

We assume that a crime has been committed. A murder.

The defendant has described what happened, declaring himself innocent.

Procedurally, an agent has analyzed the latest updates of his statistics, and considers, facts in hand, that he is the killer.

Would a trial still be necessary? If it is, what could the accused can bring to the court to be declared innocent?

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    $\begingroup$ The nanomachines are only to gather information, do not participate actively at any time. The premise around this universe is "I have nothing to hide", taken to the limit. A response that we have heard a lot in recent years. I do not have a specific answer, I am still raising many things. $\endgroup$ – Malkev Nov 13 '17 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ You may want to read the Neanderthal Parallax by Robert J. Sawyer where a judicial trial in a world with supposedly complete records is an important plot point. Also, you may want to consider that judges judge; for example, in the Anglo-Saxon judicial system the facts are ascertained by the jury, but the juridical framing and sentencing are done by the judge. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 13 '17 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings legal system in a world where the facts are undeniable and publicly accessible. I think that's different enough from our world. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Nov 13 '17 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings the answer then "it works just like in our world". The question asks about how the system might work in a world where you are monitored 60/60/24/7. If the answer "it works just like in our world", then so be it. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Nov 13 '17 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Can the recorded information be altered in any way? $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Nov 13 '17 at 19:34

12 Answers 12


Trials are records of findings

Even if someone has admitted guilt to a particular crime, there's still a court proceeding to record that. Before a trial, everyone is legally considered innocent. It is the trial that makes the legal determination that someone is guilty. Trials translate private facts into public knowledge. A corner stone of modern free society is that there is no private justice. Private, unrecorded trials are considered a bad thing.

A legal judgement has to be (well should be) made on the facts. In this world, a great many facts are easy to gather but they can't gather all the facts nor do they determine intent. As the OP states, there's no audio-visual recording and no mention of what the person knows, only what they do. A trial is a time honored place to gather those facts, analyze them and make a determination as to guilt then pronounce punishment. It's also an opportunity for mercy but that doesn't happen very often.

The difference between manslaughter and murder in the US is intent. If you intended to kill someone, that's murder. The penalties are radically different for murder vs manslaughter. Manslaughter starts with a fine and a max of 8 years imprisonment. Second degree murder starts with a prison term of years leading up to life sentences.

Social Implications

While it doesn't really apply in this situation because of the large group of people this legal arrangement exists in, small communities have trials as an important social function of maintaining social coherence and affirming social order.

Unless, of course, this is Judge Dred in which trial and execution are immediately adjacent after determining the facts. Then this whole discussion means a bit less.

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    $\begingroup$ A trial is also for sentencing. As you say, manslaughter, or murder by diminished responsibility or whatever other mitigating circumstances change the outcome for the accused. A sentence is supposed to be an opportunity to rehabilitate the offender, so "should fit the crime". Further, a trial is an opportunity to try to prevent a miscarriage of justice if the recordings were somehow falsified or witnesses have conflicting accounts of what happened etc. One would think most trials in this world would last a matter of minutes or hours versus days or weeks as happens in our world though. $\endgroup$ – Ralph Bolton Nov 13 '17 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ What a great question and answer! $\endgroup$ – Sam Weaver Nov 14 '17 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ “The difference between manslaughter and murder is intent.“ a few (german) law students rolled their eyes pretty strongly last time I heard this statement. Might be true in the US though, I don't know. $\endgroup$ – DonQuiKong Nov 14 '17 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DonQuiKong you raise a good point. There are lots of different legal heritages. Germany has their own distinct from the British or Roman or Chinese systems. At this point I only know that there are differences, not what they are. $\endgroup$ – Green Nov 14 '17 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" is mostly an American thing. There is no guarantee the futuristic society would follow that. $\endgroup$ – Phil M Nov 14 '17 at 17:26

The purpose of a trial is for justice to be seen to be done.

  • Consider the internal government point of view, the system is correct, the recordings have been seen and confirmed. The guilty person is taken away and disposed of. High efficiency, low cost.

  • Consider the public point of view. Something happened, government agents declared this person guilty, took him away and that was the last anyone saw of him. Oppressive government, no justice.

Now this government can maintain control quite effectively, but we would align it with Soviet Russia or DPRK rather than with Western freedoms. The trial needs to be public, the evidence shown, and a jury of his peers to make the call. Unless of course, totalitarian oppression is the effect you're looking for, in which case go for it.

Guilty of murder, or something else

In terms of what he could do to prove himself innocent, consider the various degrees of murder, manslaughter, death by misadventure, death as a result of gross negligence, death caused by self defence. There are many ways and many reasons why it may or may not be murder. An absolute statement of the actions taken, does not take into account the intent behind those actions. "Murder" is defined by both intent and action, not action alone. The jury must be shown that murder was planned for such a conviction.

  • $\begingroup$ I rather like this answer. If you want some more inspiration on this, it's worth watching the episodes of DS9 where they cover the Cardassian justice system and the effect that has on the populous. They take this kind of trial to its logical conclusion. $\endgroup$ – John Kossa Nov 13 '17 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ > The trial needs to be public, the evidence shown, and a jury of his peers to make the call. — in the world, where The statistics are public and global. You can look at them freely. You can see them at any time, thanks to the augmented reality. it should be easy to implement. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Nov 14 '17 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ @user28434, Many things are available to us, we can make requests to government under freedom of information laws for all kinds of documents, but most people don't do that, they wait to be told. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 14 '17 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, trials are not there for justice, they are there to follow the law. The idea of justice is different than following the law. Sometimes they coincide, but sometimes they don't. If the defense of a murder trial produces the right evidence and the prosecution doesn't a murder can go free, or if the defense is lacking and the prosecution is overbearing, an innocent person can go to jail. That's not justice, that's following the law. Unfortunately, that's the way it is. Ideally, the law would be 100% just. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Nov 14 '17 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @computercarguy, you're considering a romantic notion of justice, but it literally means, "done according to the law" $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 16 '17 at 8:59

Would a trial still be necessary? If it is, what could the accused can bring to the court to be declared innocent?

Yes, absolutely. Consider that it's entirely possible the agent simply doesn't have access to all of the facts - and may not even know that some are missing.

Bob and Mary are in the kitchen making dinner. Mary is cutting strips of meat with a rather large and very sharp knife. Bob takes a step towards Mary, she turns toward him, raises her hands and the knife edge lands in Bob's heart. We'll add another wrinkle: they've been arguing.

Based on evidencial review by an Agent: Mary is determined to have killed Bob and therefore goes to jail.

Now, let's get Mary out of jail with a bit of exculpatory evidence:

Earlier in the day Steve performed work on the kitchen floor. The floor is such that the wood part is screwed into the subfloor. Steve failed to fully seat one of the screws. When Bob took a step towards Mary he had slightly stumbled. Mary had raised her hands to prevent Bob from bumping against her. In the immediate confusion, she still held the knife and it plunged into him with no malice on her part.

If the Agent didn't know that Bob had tripped then Mary's guilt would seem open and shut. The Agent might not even be motivated to search for additional data because the information he had was quite clear. Even if the Agent wanted to search for additional data, finding out that a handyman failed to finish putting a screw in might not be recognizable as relevant.

However, Mary would have the motivation to show that she never intended to hurt Bob. She would likely know that Bob had tripped and be able to point to the spot he tripped at. The story of the exposed screw might even save her.

Moral of the Story: Having near perfect data about the actions of the participants might not be the whole story. You have to let the defense have a turn to present another viewpoint.


Recordings are not perfect

  • They can be tampered with(especially by people that control/maintain the system)
  • There are rooms that prevent electronic transmissions
  • There will be (security)bugs in the nanobots programming
  • It could be that the recording is not enough. (e.g. kill from sniperrifle 3 km afar)

Laws are not exact

  • Even if the recordings are clear it is sometimes not clear if the prosecuted has done something illegal
  • The punishment is also often variabel

The purposes of a trial are:

  • Separate the guilty from the innocent. The witnesses, or nano-cameras, or whatever are there to gather evidence. One purpose of the trial is to evaluate the evidence and apply actual judgement against (a) the facts, and (b) the law. There is some uneasy friction there, which requires the ritual.

  • Provide closure. Specifically, the notion has grown up that the trial settles the issue. That's why courts and trials are better than "citizen justice", as it puts the official stamp of closure on an issue, and avoids retaliation and blood-feud.

I'll suggest that for psychological reasons as much as anything else, people will require the ritual of the trial, even if in most (yes, most!) cases the evidence will be overwhelming and unarguable. Also, bear in mind that people would likely prefer to be judged by humans -- who understand mercy, and extenuating circumstances -- rather than rule-based automata.


Facts do not prove you committed a crime.

The key point here is the need of an agent to analyze the facts and draw a conclusion that can logically prove you committed a crime. Facts do not speak on their own. They need to be combined to prove, without a doubt, that you did the crime.

Just like our legal system, the agent might not smart enough to draw the dots on the facts. The agent might overanalyze and make assumptions. The flaws of today's persecution will still apply, thus without a doubt trial is still needed.


Yes, a trial would still be necessary, because the defendant has declared himself innocent.

There are a number of possible defences: a. That he could not have done it b. That there is sufficient doubt that he could have done it c. That the death was brought about in circumstances that cannot be considered murder, e.g. accident, self-defence

Data may exist, but data can be faulty. The more data that exists, the greater the likelihood of inconsistencies. The greater the reliance and trust in the data that exists, the less checks applied to that data. Even data degrades.

Data alone is not proof. The data needs to be organised into something which can be used to demonstrate proof. The prosecution will make their argument, and the defence will make theirs - even with the same original data, the conclusions and arguments may be different. A single set of data may have a number of alternative explanations, even if it is completely reliable.


Personally I would accept the death penalty as an escape from that world

Any how there are 2 options I see at the moment

1) You said the statistics are publically available- but perhaps they were tampered with prior to the arrest by a database admin.

2) perhaps a virus/ hack tampered with statistics in real time.

any nation believing in due process would still have court judgements as a means of solidifying the facts and giving the accused the chance to speak for themselves. Even if the case is overwhelming in evidence.


The premise reminds me somewhat of Minority Report where people were judged guilty for actions that hadn't happened yet.

The judicial system serves two purposes:

  1. Prevent wrongdoers from continuing to create problems in society
  2. Provide justice to the people and thereby restoring order.

My thoughts are that both would be satisfied in a world in which there is little doubt that a person committed a crime if the judicial system were skipped entirely. After enough time with the new system, most people wouldn't even question the system. If Roger from the office gets taken away by the police, nobody in the office would raise a finger, including Roger himself!

Of course this clearly presents a problem. How would you know the government isn't using it as a means to eliminate opposition in secret? This fortunately would present a problem to this system, as you genuinely would see people protest to this.

However, this is easily avoided by having a kangaroo court wherein a quick process where evidence is shown in the form of a digital report and a single judge quickly reads it and then announces aloud the recommended sentence written on the report. The trial wouldn't take longer than 30 seconds, and nobody would claim to be innocent except the very desperate.

  • $\begingroup$ You have to take into account the national differences in perspective on judicial systems. A country like Britain (guilty till proven innocent) may seek optimization and do away with due process vs a country like the US (innocent till proven guilty) may keep trial as a formality and let the defendant speak before judgment. There is also more dictatorial nations where such qualms are irrelevant and you're guilty flat out no hesitation. $\endgroup$ – anon Nov 13 '17 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @anon True, I think you're right. In a country where people don't expect fair treatment, they would likely just go along with it. The only thing that would change is that they don't ask themselves if a person is guilty or innocent but whether they're guilty or the government wants them gone. $\endgroup$ – Neil Nov 13 '17 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @anon, the US system is based on the British one, they're both innocent until proven guilty. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Nov 13 '17 at 15:17

You say that nano-machines record action, but that there are no sounds or videos to go along with it... in reality, with a computer examining the numerical data the "video" and the "audio" could be recreated because the nano-machines record all of the muscle movements (including vocal cords).

I assume that the victim also has "living" nano-machines that could reproduce the "audio and video" from their own perspective. In addition, in a court, the nano-technology could be used to determine whether the witness is lying or telling the truth.

There would need to be a great deal of detail in order to determine the facts including GPS position (or whatever future equivalent). For example, determining who had the killing shot when a victim stands before a firing squad takes into account a lot of details including the position of each person involved. Expand the range to 1000 yards with a dozen snipers all firing at the same target... could your nano-technology determine and account for variations such as wind, etc?

A knife thrown in a general direction does not make a murderer... only if the victim was also in that position AND the intention of the killer was to kill (an accident).

So can there be a murderer who gets away with it?

It all depends on the capabilities of your nano-technology. If the circumstances allow abuse or there are flaws in the technology, there will probably be people that take advantage of it.

Here are some questions:

  1. What happens to the nano-technology when the victim is no longer living
  2. Where is the data stored?
  3. Can the data be intercepted and manipulated? (a question to be answered regardless of WHERE the data is stored)
  4. What happens to the data of nano-machines which are destroyed? (Such as blasted away by a bullet or bomb)
  5. Can data be "blanked" out such as a result of other technology or radiation?
  6. How long does the data remain? (ex: expires after 1 year)

What are the limitations on recording?

  1. Does the nano-tech record what the host sees? (If no, does that mean the host can kill via pushing a button while watching a live video?)
  2. Does the nano-tech record thoughts, or only the body response?

Yes. However not to establish guilt but to decide on his punishment. The defendent could argue that his special circumstances Demand a lighter punishment then what is usually given to criminals who have committed murder. Perhaps he Pleads not guilty by reason of insanity.

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    $\begingroup$ The nanomachines could probably also calculate just how insane he was by measuring his blood pressure, brain activity and lots of other stuff. $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Nov 13 '17 at 19:52

It depends on what the main goal of criminal justice is considered to be in this society. Is it

  1. justice / revenge
  2. rehabilitation (making the guilty able to function and contribute)
  3. protecting people from being victims of new crimes made by the same perpetrator
  4. something else

I think it is a fair counter question because I suspect the attitudes of what the objective of the criminal justice system in such a society could radically change as compared to a society where there is doubt.

If there is perfect information gathering then the nanobots would also be able to measure things like stress level, probability for every individual of having a psychosis or a crime-of-passion incident in every possible situation perfectly well. You could then calculate mathematically exact how many percent of a persons action they could be demanded to take responsibility of in any given situation and exactly how many percent insane they were at that moment.


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