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Microsoft wants to change the world. George Clooney wants to help

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In North Africa, a blogger who spoke out about human rights is brought up on defamation charges. In South Asia, a journalist is on trial for sedition and defamation, while another in Europe faces charges of terrorism. In East Africa, several individuals have been charged under anti-LGBTQ laws.

When courts are used to oppress, when governments and police enforce human rights violations, what are ordinary people to do? Who watches the watchers? And a more fundamental question: Can technology help?

“It’s not as if the world has a shortage of apps. It just has a shortage of apps that are changing the world,” Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, told Digital Trends.

“It’s not as if the world has a shortage of apps. It just has a shortage of apps that are changing the world.”

Microsoft and The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) unveiled the TrialWatch app Thursday morning, a new tool in CFJ’s ongoing TrialWatch effort to shine a light on injustice in courts around the globe – which too often are simply barbaric.

“In a lot of courtrooms around the world, they still put defendants literally in cages,” explained David Pressman, executive director of the Clooney Foundation. “And that’s not unusual, unfortunately.” Pressman should know, having worked as National Security Council Director for War Crimes and Atrocities. He also spent three years as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and at one time served as Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security.

CFJ’s TrialWatch program, which formally launched this year, aims to monitor trials around the world that pose a high risk of human rights violations: trials that oppress vulnerable groups, silence speech, or target political opponents. Through the program, a small group of trial lawyers and activists are trained to report on legal proceedings, boiling a trial down to a series of facts that can be easily recorded and ultimately compared.

“Is the defendant in a cage? Does the defendant understand what the judge is saying? Yes/no questions like this directly implicate whether or not the tribunal is complying with international norms,” Pressman told us. But just training people to ask the right questions isn’t enough. How do you analyze that information, and compare systems based on different legal standards using different languages with different social norms from around the world? To solve that issue, CFJ turned to Microsoft.

“What has impressed me about the whole TrialWatch program is that there is a real problem that needs to be solved. You’re literally talking about situations where someone’s freedom is at stake, we’re talking about situations where someone’s life may be at stake. And therefore the ability to get a fair trial is of the most fundamental importance one can imagine,” Smith said.

The new app aims to augment the ability of TrialWatch’s monitors, making it easier to document happenings in a courtroom. It offers a platform to record audio and take pictures of people and documents, which are then uploaded to the cloud. Having a backup of these documents should serve to protect trial monitors, Smith noted. Microsoft’s A.I. can do speech-to-text translation, which should vastly simplify the job of documenting a trial. And once in the cloud, A.I. can translate that text so that experts around the globe can analyze it, regardless of language.

“We’re talking about situations where someone’s life may be at stake.”

“Technology not only will make monitors more effective in their work, technology will make the world a witness,” Smith told Digital Trends. Beyond that, the app aims to create a data set that has never existed before, and A.I. can tease out trends, analyzing trials from around the globe to determine best practices, highlight unsung heroes, and expose corruption that too often wears a badge.

“Using this technology in conjunction with this training, our hope and our mission is to be able to design and operate the first program that is really systematically attempting to scrutinize the courts of the world,” Pressman explained.

The partnership between Microsoft and CFJ is part of growing trend within the tech industry of companies trying to address social problems, a topic Digital Trends is broadly investigating through its recently launched Tech for Change portal. By helping bridge the digital divide, shining a spotlight on inequality, improving education, and so on, technology companies big and small are showing that technology isn’t a scary term that’s synonymous with privacy concerns and security breaches.

Smith says that’s a real goal of the company’s A.I. for Good suite, a package of apps created about a year and half ago with the broadest of goals: improving accessibility, solving humanitarian issues, making the world more sustainable. There are three programs today, and Smith says we can expect two more by the end of the year.

“If A.I. for Good and the suite of societal programs can accomplish even a slice for the world of what Office as a suite of software programs has done …”

“We feel like we’re on the right path.”

Interested in becoming a trial monitor with TrialWatch? Contact the organization at [email protected].  You can find the TrialWatch training course at www.trialwatchtraining.org.

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