In a Philadelphia experiment, a computer is forecasting who among the city’s 49,000 parolees is likeliest to rob, assault, or kill someone, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Since March, the city’s Adult Probation and Parole Department has been using the system to reshuffle the way it assigns cases. Each time a new parolee arrives, a clerk enters his or her name and the computer takes just seconds to fish through a database and deliver a verdict of high, medium, or low risk.
Criminologists say the system works: it can identify those most likely to commit violent crimes. Whether Philadelphia can intervene and change people’s behavior is still not known. A full evaluation won’t be done until the end of the year. The computer is creating its own rules in what is known as “machine learning,” a fast-growing technology that enables computers to encroach into the human realms of judgment and decision-making. The probation and parole department looked at a technological upgrade in 2006, when the murder rate hit a peak of 27.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest of the 10 largest U.S. cities. University of Pennsylvania criminologist Lawrence Sherman suggested the department go high-tech, with the help of University of California statistician Richard Berk.