The Stoa TP resolution choices are out, and there are some important positives and negatives to go over. Thus, I’ll just jump right into the first option:
Resolved: The USFG should substantially reform the use of Artificial Intelligence technology.
I feel like I should start with a disclaimer that I am pursuing a career in emerging technology policy (with AI being one of the major domains I’m considering). Thus, I am probably a bit naturally biased in favor of this resolution, but I do try to account for this.
Pro 1: Topical education value. I want to reemphasize what the Stoa blurb says: artificial intelligence seems like it will be an incredibly revolutionary/impactful technology for humanity—arguably to an extent that still is not yet reflected by the amount of mainstream attention and discussion regarding the technology. In short, I think it is highly valuable for young people to be studying this topic.
Pro 2: Topic interestingness. This may be my bias creeping in a bit, but I do think that the importance and depth of the topic makes it rather interesting. Although most cases should not be about dramatic, apocalyptic or utopian scenarios involving superintelligences, learning about the potential for revolutionary innovations is generally interesting. It’s possible that some people simply won’t like the technicality of the discussions, but there is a decent amount of diversity in terms of what you can focus on (see con 3), which makes it easier to choose things that are relevant to your interests (e.g., medicine, surveillance, security).
Con 1: Wording. I’m really unclear on why the resolution writers chose to say “reform the use of…” instead of something more traditional like “reform its artificial intelligence policy” or “reform its policy regarding the use of artificial intelligence.” I expect that this will further exacerbate some of the other topicality issues mentioned below, and it may even force debaters to grapple with effects-topicality theory. Suppose for example that a case proposes large federal investment into AI industries in order to enhance AI development: having not done substantive definitional/interpretation research and analysis, I think you can make a valid argument that this is topical (depending on the advantages/solvency), but I don’t know if it will be easy to consistently convince judges that that counts as “reforming the use of AI technology.”
Con 2: Complexity of—and confusion over—“artificial intelligence.” This partially just refers to the fact that debaters will likely have to put in extra work to make sure they genuinely understand the issues at hand—which I think is totally outweighed by the topic-education value (and also adds some skills-education value in the sense of “understanding complex topics”). However, the deeper problem is that there is plenty of disagreement even in the academic literature itself on how to define AI. Thus, I expect that topicality focused on “what is AI” will be a common challenge for a wide number of cases—although, as the next con illustrates, some of the topicality presses will probably be necessary/justified.
Con 3: Case breadth. I’ve found it’s difficult to make accurate predictions on how many cases will be viable and popular, but I think the best guess is that this resolution will have more than an average number of cases given how broad AI is. For just one of the many lists on “How Artificial Intelligence Is Being Used”, see this article: it includes sectors such as education, transportation, medicine, investing/finances, business in general, etc.
Mixed: I don’t think judge bias will be that bad, perhaps due to a lack of familiarity with the topics. I do have some minor concerns about the possibility of occasional judge bias in the form of distrust of some AI (whether due to Hollywood or religious opposition), but I don’t expect this to be relevant to most of the possible cases, since so many uses of AI are rather “tame.” (Of course, as with most resolutions it’s hard to know exactly what cases will become popular.) Yet, even if there is some light judge bias to these kinds of things, I expect that it is not nearly as deeply rooted as something like abortion policy (or election reform), and thus this gives you a chance to work on your “explaining daunting topics to a lay crowd” skills.
Verdict: In the end, I think this is an incredibly important topic for young people to be studying and I think many people will find it interesting in part because of its importance/relevance. The wording, definitional, and case breadth issues are worrying, but my impression is that debaters can ultimately figure out how to make it work. My final grade: B
Resolved: Election law should be substantially reformed in the United States.
Pro 1: Significance. Election law is filled with significant and widely-discussed individual proposals for reform (e.g., abolishing the electoral college, switching to approval or ranked-choice voting systems, voter ID laws, voting rights for some former felons, electronic voting systems), and election law in general is at least arguably influential in how our overall government functions.
Pro 2: Interestingness. Largely drawing on the previous point, there are lots of interesting cases to debate, with lots of angles to approach it from (e.g., fair access vs. integrity of election systems vs. perceptions of election integrity). Ultimately, I doubt you will not be able to find anything interesting.
Pro 3: Accessibility. Mainly as a result of the fact that so many reforms are already discussed/researched combined with the fact that election law is not as technical as something like monetary policy or artificial intelligence, I expect that this resolution would be very accessible to newer debaters that, among other things, have little to no experience writing cases and/or briefs.
Con: Judge bias.
“But debating election law the year after a highly controversial election is the perfect timing.”
Put simply, I strongly disagree. To be fair, Stoa’s blurb adds that “Enough time will have passed to allow some of the emotions to cool”: maybe there is a point to be made here, but it’s worth emphasizing how many Republicans did and still continue to refuse to believe that Biden’s victory was legitimate. This means that if emotions do not cool down enough by the start of the debate season, debaters will find themselves up a political creek.
In case it is unclear, one of the major concerns here is that some affirmative teams may coast by on strongly/widely held political stances among the conservative-leaning judges (e.g., suspicion of electoral fraud), running red-meat cases that mainly just appeal to judge bias. A secondary concern is that some judges will be biased against even slightly left-of-center cases (or just anything that they perceive as letting Democrats get more power).
On the first point, though, I will note that running a case that heavily relies on judge bias is a major gamble: if you get a decent judge and go against a decent team, your case will likely fall flat. Thus, there is some reason to think that most teams will not just run abusive “2020 was rigged” cases. (Although it is possible for teams to have two or more cases and run whichever one suits the judge better, this seems like it would be quite rare, and if necessary negatives could likely figure out a way to stop it, such as by asking the aff to commit to a case before the judge describes their experience/philosophy.) On the secondary concern, it’s worth noting that there are lots of relatively politically-neutral cases (e.g., approval or ranked choice voting).
More generally, I genuinely think the league would likely find a way to mostly deal with judge bias, even if I also expect it will be worse than the average year. Still, the thought of losing multiple rounds to some second-tournament freshman teams that are barely able to do more than confidently read their “2020 was rigged” talking points over and over again would make me extremely hesitant to vote for a resolution like this.
Mixed: Wording. I do think that it was necessary to not designate the USFG as the actor since so many cases depend on the states’ agreement to implement the laws. Still, not having an actor runs the risk of unforeseen confusion/muddying, and more substantively, being able to fiat the 50 states seems to tip the scales further in the advantage of the affirmative since one of the bad policy drivers of election policy seems to be the fact that coordinating laws across the 50 states (including blue, purple, and red states) is relatively improbable and difficult. In other words, there is more reason to expect that there are policies out there which are easily-defensible but still have not been implemented because magical fiat power doesn’t exist in the real world.
Verdict: Ultimately, the more I think about this resolution, the less horrendously terrible it seems (my initial impression was something like a D- or outright F), but I still fail to see why someone would want to take the risk of Judging Roulette instead of going with a safer option like 1 or 3. My final grade: D+
Resolved: Tort law should be substantially reformed in the United States.
Pro 1: Relevant topical education? As the Stoa blurb notes, you could try to make the argument that this is personally relevant to people since some people ultimately do pursue legal remedies through civil courts… but of course artificial intelligence is far more commonly used, and most adults also have the option of participating in elections… So in reality, I guess this is more downplaying than emphasizing this pro.
Pro 2: All-around and tame. Perhaps the strongest thing about this motion is that it isn’t terrible, which honestly is not bad.
Con: Blandness. Just like with almost every resolution option, you can try to make some passionate appeal as to why “tort law is just so important” and/or “it’s so relevant to you.” Although perhaps true, it’s important to think of the issue at the individual-cases level, and at least in comparison to the other two options on the table it seems that this resolution will tend to have less-interesting/less-consequential cases. Still, I want to caution people not to dismiss it solely on these grounds; I’m confident there would be some interesting cases out there, I just don’t think there will be as many as with options 1 or 2, and I think the most interesting cases will likely be from options 1 and 2.
Mixed: Wording. As with option 2, this is a relatively minor point on balance, I just think that the deviation from having the USFG as the actor involves a bit of risk of unforeseen confusion/muddiness. Again, I presume the justification is that tort law is primarily legislated by the states, meaning that having the USFG as the actor would probably be a bad choice, but the fact that this resolution avoids a mistake should not be interpreted as a true “pro” for this choice.
Verdict: In all honesty, my analysis thus far has probably undersold this option: I really don’t think it’s that bad, I just don’t think it is quite as interesting or educational as things like AI or election law. It’s hard to be as confident since I am not as familiar with discussions over tort law compared to election law and AI issues, but I don’t think it will pose major accessibility or judge bias issues. My final grade: B-
Conclusion: 1 > 3 >> 2
In my view, all of the options have weaknesses, but option 2 clearly has the worst problems. Option 3 just seems bland, but it seems the least “risky” and could turn out to be better than expected depending on how interesting the cases are. Nonetheless, I still would recommend option 1 despite its flaws because I consider the educational value of having young people learning about AI to be very significant (and I think debaters will find it to be interesting). I do wish Stoa would fix the wording of that resolution to include the word “policy”, but I’m not holding out my hopes for that.
Post-publication note from the author: one of the original statements in this article used an expression/description which, upon reflection following a reader’s comment, I recognized does not reflect the standards that Ethos tries to uphold. Thus, I decided to replace it with less-charged language; I apologize for any offense it may have caused.