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ComputerScience@Corpus: Computer Science Competition

For many years, the College has run essay competitions in various subjects and for the last three years we have invited Computer Science essays. The Computer Science competition has attracted entries of an impressive standard. This fourth year, our topic blends formal logic with legislative procedures and is close to the research area of Ewa Luger, our current Corpus-Microsoft Fellow, whose work combines logic and ethics.

2015/16: Should the law of the land be enacted using formal logic?'

A large fraction of the legislation generated by the Government must currently be manually transcoded from plain English to a machine-readable form for evaluation inside servers at www.gov.uk. A server then grants people various licenses and benefits or else denies them, based on what it already knows about a user and additional data that the user enters on web forms. It ranges over many aspects of life, such as the right of an old person to apply for a free door entry system or TV license, whether a person under 17 can apply for a driving license, or whether someone on a temporary visa can apply for a student loan or gun license. Although legislation is drafted using a stylised dialect of English (legislative drafting language), the process of converting English text to rules inside the server suffers from three main problems: firstly it is slow, secondly it is error prone, and thirdly, the formalisation can reveal gaps and inconsistencies in the law as placed on the statute book. Indeed, aspects of case law have now been established by the observed behaviour of the www.gov.uk site and it is unclear whether some of this behaviour is nothing more than programming errors. A suggested alternative is that formal logic is used in the legislation as enacted. (By enacted, we refer to the process of placing a definitive version of a new law in the official repository: currently this is ink on vellum in the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster.)

Please write an essay entitled 'Should the law of the land be enacted using formal logic?' Your essay should cover six of the following topics, passing nicely from one to the next. Do not break up your essay using subheadings: instead, to aid marking, please underline a key phrase that captures the essence of a topic in the first paragraph where that topic is covered. Please use between 400 and 800 words for each topic. Credit will be awarded for clarity of writing and good use of logic.

Please use six of the following topics, taking three each from list A and list B.

List A

  • Classes of appropriate logic (description logic, deontic logic, predicate calculus, higher-order logic ...).
  • Ease of mechanical reasoning: some logics facilitate rapid reasoning (such as using only Horn clauses, and decidable subsets of arithmetic and linear programming).
  • Soundness, ambiguity and contradiction: what do these terms mean and how would they be manifested?
  • Design considerations for the software component architecture: how should the laws be stored and updated, or vary between Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Holding an ontology in a database or reasoner.
  • Graphical or natural language rendering (output) of formal propositions and the ease with which a user can find out why a decision was made by the system, rather than something like the cliche 'computer says no' being all that is available.
  • Determining potentially-unexpected consequences arising from adding a special case.

List B

  • The acceptance of formal logic by the legal profession: despite having razor-sharp minds, many lawyers might be obstinate.
  • Could a computer replace a judge or jury ? The broader socio-political impacts of such an automated approach. The need for appeal opportunities.
  • The notion of 'truth' - computers are digital yet the real world is analogue. In a social context, can we really say that something is absolutely true ? What checks might the system make against fabricated input values?
  • Will computerisation of the law result in justice more or less often?
  • Would laws drafted in formal logic have subtle differences compared with those in legislative English? Would they tend to be simpler or more complex laws? What trade-offs are made.
  • Algorithmic reasoning and bias: Would the use of mechanised logic increase or decrease the level of innate bias in our laws, and might it make the bias more or less visible?
  • A topic of your own choosing.


2016 winner: Jessica Reeve (The Tiffin Girls’ School). 2016 runners up: Helena Coggan (Godolphin and Latymer School), Kelvin Zhang (Whitgift School).

The problem this year required consideration both of of various types of legal procedures (civil versus criminal, initial application versus appeal) and of logic programming systems (examples being description logic, deontic logic and predicate calculus). Three entries clearly stood out for their understanding of the problem and solution spaces and for the strength of their argument. All three presented a systematic analysis, but also brought original insights to the discussion. Finally, J Reeve was picked as winner owing to her slightly greater demonstration of mathematical logic, since this was, after all, a competition in Computer Science.

Entry Conditions and Procedure

Download cover sheet PDF.

  1. Entries must be accompanied by a signed cover sheet and submitted, by post, by schools or colleges on behalf of their entrants to: The Admissions Office, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge CB2 1RH. Alternatively, entries may be emailed, as PDF documents only, to admissions@corpus.cam.ac.uk.

  2. A maximum of two entries per school or college is invited.

  3. There is a “prize pot” of £300, with (at least) prizes of £100 each for the best two entries submitted for the competition.

  4. Submissions should reach the College by 5:00 pm on Friday 12th February 2016. Regrettably, faxes and email attachments cannot be accepted.

  5. Please note that entries will not be returned and entrants may therefore wish to keep their own copy of the submission. Entrants retain their copyright.

  6. Receipt of entries will be acknowledged by email.

  7. To avoid plagiarism, the College reserves the right to request a short telephone call or skype session with any entrant before announcing winners.

  8. Winners and other particularly commended entrants will be notified by letter in March 2016 and invited to a prize giving and lunch on Saturday 7 May.

  9. The College does not enter into correspondence about any aspect of the competition or the results thereof. Feedback on the submission is not provided.

  10. Note: working computer programs are not required and any submitted will not be looked at. Code fragments and diagrams should be included in the body of the essay where helpful.

Please note: Material submitted for this competition will NOT be used for admissions-related purposes. The judges will be recent graduates in Computer Science from Corpus and the Corpus-Microsoft Fellows.

Previous Years' Essay Competitions

The previous year's winners were of such a high standard that it was hard to sort the top quartile of entries. So, for 2014/15, we set an essay competition that was a little more technical and that might require a little more research by the entrants (TASK). There were fewer entries (around 15-20) but nearly every one was very good indeed. The winner was Oliver Hope (Kings School, Canterbury). Jointly second were Charlotte Manser (Godolphin&Latymer) and Craig Ferguson (Gordonstoun, Moray).

More than half of the 2013/14 entries (TASK) were of a very high standard indeed. Some went into quite a lot of technical depth which was impressive. The winning entry was distinctive for not only being technically very good, but for its overall style which made an exceptionally clear presentation. A number of entries chose a title that framed a primary issue of whether tactile was preferable to touchscreen and most of these decided that tactile was best but that another interface, such as a touchscreen, would be needed for system configuration and more advanced use cases. One entry ignored the essay instructions and did not even include a title. The winner was Wenying Wu (Stephen Perse, Cambridge) with "Comparing Haptic Interfaces and the Touchscreen". Second was Arjun Gill (Wilson's School, Surrey).

The 2012/13 Computer Science Competition attracted a very high standard of entries (TASK). Everybody recognised the importance of Game Theory to the business world and most people presented effective definitions of the game paradigm suitable for abstract solving by computers. The majority of entrants submitted code fragments and these varied greatly in length with the shortest one being just three lines of code in Lua. From a shortlist of five entries we selected a pair of winners who were each awarded first prize. They were Angus Hammond and Enis Nazif.

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