To what extent can robots replace humans? They’ve already bested us in games such as chess and jeopardy, and one day they might even (gasp!) outperform humans as lawyers. But could a robot replicate our society’s most important lawmaking functions? One machine took up the challenge to a small degree last week.
Last Thursday, Congress extended three sections of the PATRIOT Act, a mere few hours before the important but controversial provisions were to expire. Unfortunately, President Obama was abroad attending to important matters of state, and could not sign the bill in time to meet the rapidly approaching sunset clause. So, for the first time, the President took up the services of an autopen to sign the bill into law.
The autopen is a machine that replicates signatures (check it out here). It’s used frequently by the President to sign cards and letters, but until last week, the autopen had never been used to formally authorize a piece of legislation.
While the robotic reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provoked its fair share of jokes (“Autopen for Prez, 2012!”) and puns (“ROBAMA”), some have argued in court in support of Prop 8 – wrote a memo while serving in the Office of Legal Council during the Bush Administration stating that the autopen was a Constitutionally permissible manner for the President to sign a bill into law (read the memo here).
Yet if the President can use machines to ease his lawmaking function, why can’t other members of government, such as Congress? Members of the House and Senate are forced to frequently travel to and from Washington as they seek to perform legislative functions and maintain contact with their constituents. While some – such as Vice President Biden, who proudly commuted from his home state to the capital each day as a Senator – can easily do this, most lawmakers are forced to spend long periods of time in Washington when Congress is in session.
One result has been the development of an infamous “inside the Beltway culture,” and a common critique that national lawmakers are out of touch with those they’re supposed to represent. In reaction to this, members of Congress have turned to technology, using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (though not always to their advantage) to try to reach out to the people.
But wouldn’t it be better to do the reverse? Just as the President may now use a robotic pen to sign law, couldn’t Congress use Internet technologies to vote on bills electronically and conduct floor debates via streaming video, rather than replace constituent outreach with virtual town halls on YouTube? While using new technologies to connect with the public is a noble goal with positive results, it seems preferable to let the Capitol go digital, and let its lawmakers go home to the people they seek to represent.