(Background: Alan Kay is a renowned computer scientist. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society of Arts. In his early work at DARPA and Xerox, he contributed to the development of object-oriented programming and graphical user interfaces. In 1972, he conceived the concept of the Dynabook, which he described as a “computer for children of all ages”, a precursor to today’s laptops and tablets. In recognition of his work over the years, Kay has received essentially every major award in CS – the Draper Prize, The Turing Award, and the Kyoto Prize.)

Alan Kay

At CodeX FutureLaw 2021, Alan Kay delivered a keynote address entitled “There oughta be a law”. The advertised topic of the talk was the importance of explanation in the law – the reasoning behind individual decisions as well as the rationale for general rules and regulations. What we all expected was a scholarly overview of explanation theory and explanation technology. What we got was a superbly crafted account of the human need for explanation, a glimpse of the challenges involved in meeting that need, and some compelling suggestions for our legal system and our society.

To make his case, Kay chose as a central image the “Theater of the Mind”. We perceive the world around us and construct theories in our minds (in our mental theaters). We struggle to make sense of what we see and hear. If things make sense, we assume that our theories represent reality, and we use those theories in selecting actions that we believe will enhance our well-being.

One problem is that our theories are not always the same as the theories of others and may or may not correspond to reality. In interpreting the inputs from our senses, we bring to bear individual preconceptions and preferences; and these factors may affect what we think we are perceiving. In some cases, we interpret things the way we want them to be, in ways that reinforce our preconceptions and prejudices. This is natural. In Kay’s quote from Robert Heinlein: “we are not so much rational animals as rationalizing animals”.

The upshot is that explanation is not always easy. If two people share definitions and beliefs, whether real or un-real, it is possible to explain things by reference to those shared definitions and beliefs. However, when there are mismatches in the world views of individuals, explanation is likely to require, in Kay’s words, “real teaching on the part of the explainer and real learning on the part of the explainee”.

Our drive to understand our environment and ourselves is what fuels activity in natural science. Agreement on well-verified natural laws makes it easier for us to explain things to each other. The hope of many is that a similar approach can be used with well-justified artificial laws in our legal system. If we were to agree on those laws and our understanding of the world and ourselves, explanation would be relatively easy.

This is one of the arguments for Computational Law. It enables explanations of individual decisions in terms of facts and clearly stated rules and regulations. At a higher level, Computational Law enables explanations of general rules and regulations in terms of shared standards and values. This works provided that everyone knows the relevant rules and regulations and everyone shares the underlying standards and values.

Unfortunately, things are not perfect. Not everyone understands the rules and regulations. Not everyone knows the relevant science. Not everyone agrees on the underlying standards and values. Where there is agreement on science and standards and values, there is often insufficient evidence to know what rules and regulations will best support those standards and values. Even where there is sufficient evidence, the process of inventing general rules and regulations is often flawed for extraneous (often purely political) reasons.

Kay’s suggestion on how to address these imperfections is education. Education in schools to create a more informed and rational populace. And education as needed for explanation where there are fundamental differences of opinion. And, of course, the basis for education, the basis for helping others understand, is the sharing of relevant and compelling stories that play well in our mental theaters.

Here is Kay’s position in his own words. “One overall ‘mood’ for the talk is that creating a perfect oracle for the law will still fall afoul of humans wanting the world to be the way their internal stories suggest. Much of Greek theatre is about humans being well warned ahead of time — by both oracles and gods — and still persisting to destroy themselves. I think the only thing that will help this a bit — maybe even enough — is to have schools successfully teach children a scientific outlook.”

Kay’s address is informative, entertaining, and intellectually exhilarating. If you are interested in seeing and hearing the talk first hand, click on the link shown below. You won’t be disappointed.

CodeX FutureLaw 2021 Keynote Address

Citation: Genesereth, Michael R.: “Theater of the Mind”, Complaw Corner, Codex: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, 2021, https://law.stanford.edu/2021/04/21/theater-of-the-mind/.