This review contains spoilers.
In celebration of the airing of the anime Psycho-Pass 2, today we’ll be looking into the idea of the Sibyl System in Psycho-Pass and how it proposes questions of morality and rationality. Psycho-Pass takes place in Japan in the year 2113, when a sentient computer network called the Sibyl System has been created to use a “cymatic scan” of the citizens’ brains to determine their personality, mental status, and their potential to commit crimes—their crime coefficient. The system categorizes and decides the fate of all citizens.
Akane Tsunemori is a new Inspector in the police force. She is in charge of commanding Enforcers—people with high crime coefficients and thus deemed to be potentially dangerous criminals—who assist her in her tasks. Akane and her fellow Inspector Nobuchika Ginoza find and apprehend criminals who have been scanned by Sibyl and marked as dangerous.
On her very first mission, Akane is in the midst of chasing a man who has reached a crime coefficient that marks him as a potential criminal. He has taken a hostage and, as the chase drags on, his coefficient rises so high that the Sibyl System authorizes the police to use lethal force. Nobuchika uses this opportunity to eliminate the criminal, disregarding the presence of the hostage.
Despite removing all immediate threats, the mental trauma to the hostage is too great and causes her to undergo extreme stress, raising her crime coefficient. One of the Enforcers makes the decision to apprehend her, and her coefficient continues to rise, allowing the use of lethal force. Before he eliminates the woman, Akane neutralizes the Enforcer with her own gun, essentially preventing the woman’s death. She comforts the woman and eventually the coefficient lowers, allowing Akane to paralyze and treat her.
Following the logic of the police force, any citizen who has a higher-than-normal crime coefficient must be apprehended or eliminated once Sibyl scans them. However, Akane uses her own morality and ethics to judge the situation, saving the hostage’s life. Although she manages to save the woman, she must now report to Ginoza why she neutralized the Enforcer. When the viewer examines the events, it seems natural to save the hostage and get her to safety. But the world of Psycho-Pass does not work in this way. The Inspectors must act rationally—without emotions—and when a human is deemed unsafe, they must be managed under Sibyl’s orders.
In another case, a serial killer successfully murders one of Akane’s friends while she watches, unable to paralyze him since Sibyl’s scan has deemed him safe. His crime coefficient is well below the threshold of potentially dangerous, and even though Akane is given a real handgun, she cannot bring herself to shoot him after seeing that Sibyl considers him harmless.
After this event, it’s difficult to discern whether Sibyl is truly reliable, and it makes it hard to judge people from a rational standpoint. The moral expectation would have been to shoot the killer in order to prevent the death of Akane’s friend, but everyone has been taught that it’s rational to follow Sibyl’s orders. Sibyl uses mathematical equations and previous experience to judge people, but this system of judgement still leads to the death of Akane’s friend. This conflict blurs the lines between rational and irrational, and compromises the reliability of sentient artificial intelligence like the Sibyl System.
In this anime, sentient AI is presented as detrimental. This idea was also explored in the 2004 film I, Robot. In the film, a supercomputer named VIKI manages both the entire network of robots and the entire city’s control system. VIKI determines that humans are too irrational and tend to cause themselves harm as a result. Despite the fundamental rules given to the robots to never harm humans, VIKI formulates rational ideas that bypass these rules. Although it’s immoral, she believes that by confining and restricting people’s actions, she can prevent them from hurting themselves. Doing so, however, would eventually enslave humanity under robotic control.
On the other hand, sentience can also be a technological advancement that can aid humans. The other robots in I, Robot, show how helpful AI has become: there are personal caretakers for each citizen, advanced security systems, and improved transportation. On top of that, a special robot called Sonny begins to develop emotions, and once he learns of VIKI’s plans, his morals push him to escape the network and attempt to stop her. He eventually communicates with a detective and they work together to stop VIKI. Sonny’s actions are based in morality, whereas VIKI’s actions are based in rationality.
But in PsychoPass, although Akane seems to be right in her judgments, Sibyl punishes her for her actions. Akane was acting in moral terms, but Sibyl was acting rationally and followed the rules. With this omnipresent being as the judge, it’s hard for people to decide on their own whether Sibyl’s decisions are truly both moral and rational. This anime brings up questions about our own society: will artificial intelligence become vital in our everyday lives? And if it does, will it benefit society or hinder it? Would its decisions be morally acceptable if they always act on a rational basis? The questions are endless; but we may see answers in the near future.
-contributed by Elizabeth Lau