In The Pinocchio Brief when Raymond Maynard, a brilliant 15-year-old student, is accused of the brutal murder of his teacher, his defence team (the veteran Judith Burton and youngster Constance Lamb) are shocked to find that his testimony is to be “judged” by a machine.  They already have plenty of other difficulties; Raymond was found at the scene of the crime, everyone else has an alibi and he refuses to tell them anything about what happened.  But Constance is convinced of his innocence “this boy is not violent …and the police have not investigated anything at all. They see this as an easy open-and-shut case” and she embarks on a quest to determine who killed Roger Davies and why, with a number of secrets being uncovered along the way.

I was inspired to write TPB (in part) by a piece I had read some years back on the “Silent Talker” psychological profiling system (this morphs into Pinocchio in my story) which analyses non-verbal cues (tiny facial movements) to assess the credibility of the target.  But how likely is it that this kind of technology would be rolled out on matters of such importance?  Well, at the risk of sounding too much like a lawyer and not enough like an author of crime fiction (although I know crime fiction readers like their writers authentic) I will now make the case for you that Pinocchio (or something similar) is, at the very least, a plausible addition to our armoury of tools to detect and investigate crime. The biggest factor driving change is cost; in the UK in 2014, £320m was removed from the annual legal aid budget with the aim of a further reduction of £220m per year up to 2018.   Jury trials in the UK cost up to £3000 per day and jurors can claim only limited expenses.  Considerable pressure exists to remove the right to a jury from many aspects of the system and to lower other costs wherever possible, including by increased digitalisation and replacement of people with machines.

In TPB Judith Burton understands that the introduction of Pinocchio is the beginning of the end for the current system “if a machine will determine the veracity of Ray’s evidence, then they don’t need you or me or a judge or jury…and we’ll end up with some kangaroo court system.” The second crucial element is the requisite technology to make “trial by machine” work; this is springing up wherever you look.

For example, a computer system called VALCRI is currently in use by the West Midlands police, scanning millions of police records, generating plausible ideas about how crimes were committed and making connections with other crimes and crime scenes. The European P-REACT project works with CCTV footage to detect petty crime, tracking people’s movements, to analyse if they are behaving normally or not (walking is pre-programmed as normal behaviour, fighting is not); “dodgy” footage is then selected for further viewing.  A life-sized robot is the latest addition to the Dubai police force; their aim is to have a 25% robotic force by 2030. Research in the USA has propounded the view that robots would be better at interviewing children than humans, in cases of alleged child abuse.  Humans, it seems, frequently flout the guidelines and ask leading rather than open questions, with distorted (and sometimes tragic) results. And facial recognition software is now very advanced.  Since August 2015, Microsoft’s “Windows Hello” has allowed users to sign in to their devices with biometric information, including their face and recent tests show it is discerning enough to distinguish between identical twins.

But reliability is key (each of the real technological advances I have mentioned has its limitations) and Judith’s instincts tell her that you can’t replace years of experience in evidence gathering and cross examination with a machine.  As Dr Winter, Pinocchio’s promoter, admits “[Pinocchio is] not like a person. I mean. Pinocchio won’t go back at the end and reassess things, like we do. He simply works on the present, what he sees and processes it then and there.” And, clearly, it’s impossible to programme a machine to interpret correctly every eventuality which may arise, particularly given our diverse population.  Of course, the flipside, which Dr Winter is quick to declare, is that not everyone these days has access to a competent defence lawyer and certainly not one of Judith’s calibre.  And with the recent Law Society guidance confirming that lawyers don’t have to take on “uneconomical” cases, leaving some defendants completely unrepresented, he may well have a point.

Abi Silver’s novel The Pinocchio Brief is published by Lightning Books, price £8.99 paperback original.


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