It takes a while, but the inevitable reference to the film Minority Report eventually crops up in “Black Box Justice”— associate editor Trey Popp’s comprehensively reported cover story on Richard Berk, who builds computer algorithms designed to predict crime. Though he chairs Penn’s criminology department, Trey writes, “Berk prefers to be known as a statistician with a yen for machine learning.”
Berk’s algorithms, which have been used to help make parole decisions and set policing priorities, work by collecting an enormous amount of data on past offenders—arrest record, zip code, age, race, income, and much more—and sifting through different combinations to determine which set of factors is likely to lead to future criminal behavior. Berk has a high level of confidence in their accuracy, and the results to date seem to bear him out.
Getting it right can literally be a matter of life and death, as the chilling anecdote that opens the story—about a released prisoner who went on a killing spree and said, after his capture, “blame the parole board”—makes clear. The flip side of that is the issue of how many potentially harmless parolees should remain incarcerated to avoid one tragic mistake, and the mundane but critical matter of spreading limited law enforcement resources around most effectively.
And then there is the knotty question of fairness. Trey interviewed several legal scholars at Penn and elsewhere who point to the inherent conflicts involved in relying on statistical predictions to make decisions in a criminal justice system that, on the one hand, insists on a presumption of innocence, and, on the other, has been systemically and historically biased against blacks in particular. A system built on past data will inevitably reproduce those biases, they say.
Berk doesn’t see his role as making those judgments; he’s just trying to offer the most accurate prediction possible. “If shoe size or sunspots predict that someone’s going to commit a homicide,” he has said, “I want to use that information—even if I have no idea why it works.”
But he is adamant about being transparent about how it works. While some similar programs are proprietary, his are open source. Beyond that, society needs to work out how far the analogy to Minority Report should go, rather than assuming a group of “smart guys” can invent a system that does the thinking for the criminal justice system.
The moment in 2011 that an asleep-at-the-wheel SUV driver ran into Ron Gold C’83 W’83 while he was biking on a scenic road was an unpredictable tragic accident that left the proudly athletic and active Gold permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Even as his exercise ethic and physical stamina made him a star in rehab, his emotional state remained one of despair. In “Ron Gold’s Second Act,” Dave Zeitlin C’03 recounts how Gold regained what his wife Betsy calls his “strong spirit for life” and describes the new personal and professional journey the two of them have embarked on.
Particularly important to his recovered sense of purpose was another tragedy—the death of his friend and fellow alum Anne Heyman C’82 in a riding accident—which brought home the realization that “this is all I got,” Gold told Dave. “I better make the best of it.”
The fervent embrace that TV audiences last season gave the new show This Is Us was a plot twist worthy of its creator, Dan Fogelman C’97. The love was surprising, feel-good, and set up a high-stakes drama for the future: Can the show sustain its extraordinary popular and creative momentum in its second season, set to begin on September 26?
As Alyson Krueger C’07 reports in “This Is Us Is His,” Fogelman’s creative path began with a newsletter written to amuse his Penn housemates—this after a fight over some missing house-party money. He’s been working on a film this summer, but few projects right now are as high profile as the laughter-and-tears-filled saga of the Pearson family of This Is Us. As for what happens next, reaction to the Season One finale was divided. Stay tuned.
We’ve reached a turning point of sorts here at the Gazette, too—less a change of direction than a periodic rethinking of how to best present the many stories of the Penn community in our pages. We hope you approve of the changes we’ve made in the magazine’s design, which are the work of our own extraordinary art director, Catherine Gontarek. Certainly let us know what you think of them, and, as always, anything else you see in the magazine.