Robots

Roombas in the Big House?

What to do when robots break the law

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In 1979, a robot killed a human for the first time. It happened at a Ford facility in Flat Rock, Michigan, in an elaborate five-level structure called a core stacker where 10 robots continuously stored and retrieved large metal castings. Litton Industries, which built the core stacker and the robots that toiled there, described it as an "unattended system." But according to a 1984 Omni feature about the incident, the machines actually required a great deal of intervention in practice—people had to tweak alignments and pick up dropped objects on a regular basis.

But the robots, which glided along rail-like tracks in near silence, continued operating even when fragile, fleshy human beings were nearby. And one day in 1979, one of those machines, which was equipped with sensors that allowed it to "see" some components of the system but apparently not people, rolled up behind Robert Williams and struck his head, killing him. A jury instructed Litton Industries to pay $10 million in damages to Williams' family. Presumably, the robot got off scot-free.

No account of the incident suggests the robot acted with deliberate malice, or even recklessness, but the incident set the stage for future dystopias nonetheless. We had begun to create a new category of machines that were capable of killing us—and unlike, say, cars, guns, or roller coasters, these new machines were deliberately imbued with a degree of autonomy that could potentially make their behavior somewhat unpredictable. That autonomy would only increase over time.

Thirty-six years later, the worldwide robot population has exploded, and the bots are increasingly sophisticated. Their designers have gotten more sophisticated too, and that helps mitigate some of their potential danger. The Litton Industries robots weighed 2,500 pounds and issued no warning noises when they moved. Today's robots boast sensors that help them avoid collisions with humans, they're often built out of light-weight and forgiving materials, and they're often designed to be easy to shut off.

Greg Beato
TerryColon.com

But as artificial intelligence (A.I.) systems—including bots that exist as nothing more than lines of code—become increasingly pervasive and autonomous, it's only natural to assume that their potential for unexpected and unwanted behavior is going to increase too. In short, some robots are going to commit crimes.

Take a recent project by a couple of Swiss artists. They created an automated shopping bot, gave it a budget of $100 in bitcoin per week, and instructed it to go on a buying spree at a darknet market that offered thousands of items for sale—some legal, others not.

The bot bought a variety of items, including 10 ecstasy pills. In the wake of its buying spree, various observers entertained the notion of whether or not the artists might be criminally liable for the bot's actions. But while the potential liability of the artists was indeed interesting, another possibility emerged that was even stranger than arresting human beings for something a bot did without the explicit instruction or knowledge of its creators or operators. The authorities could arrest the bot.

In this particular instance, we know a crime was committed: Ecstasy pills were purchased. And if whatever local laws are in play suggest the artists aren't criminally liable for that purchase, then who is, except the bot that committed the act?

Charging robots and other A.I. systems with crimes may seem absurd. And locking up, say, an incorrigibly destructive Roomba in solitary confinement sounds even more preposterous. How exactly do we punish entities whose consciousness arises from computer code?

These are the kinds of questions the law professor Gabriel Hallevy addresses in his 2013 book When Robots Kill: Artificial Intelligence Under Criminal Law.

Hallevy, who teaches law at Israel's Ono Academic College, argues that there are both social benefits and a legal precedent to applying criminal liability to A.I. systems when they misbehave.

There's certainly a rationale for this perspective. The coming proliferation of robots is creating a fair amount of anxiety, at least among the human punditocracy. Many of their concerns are economic in nature-they're worried that robots are on the verge of putting everyone out of work. But robot anxiety is broader than that. There are concerns about drones and privacy, concerns about how self-driving cars will make snap decisions when lives are at stake, concerns about what happens when we unleash millions of intelligent entities that have the capacity to make autonomous decisions instead of just following predictable preprogrammed routines. Decades of sci-fi stories have primed us to imagine the worst.

Perhaps our legal system can assuage these fears somewhat. "Criminal law plays an important role in giving people a sense of personal confidence," Hallevy writes. "If any individual or group is not subject to the criminal law, the personal confidence of the other individuals is severely harmed because those who are not subject to the criminal law have no incentive to obey the law." But if we understand that drug-buying bots and self-driving cars must abide by the same rules we all follow, and face similar punishments when they transgress, perhaps some of our anxieties about their potential behavior will dissipate.

Is this perspective fair to robots, though? Essentially, it puts them on the same level as people, even though they're clearly not human. The robot that killed Robert Williams in 1979 had no conception of morality. Neither did the ecstasy-buying bot.

In Hallevy's estimation, such concerns are unfounded. "Criminal liability does not require that offenders possess all human capabilities, only some," he writes. "If an AI entity possesses these capabilities, then logically and rationally, criminal liability can be imposed whenever an offense is committed."

What matters, Hallevy suggests, is not moral accountability or an A.I. system's ability to grasp concepts like good and evil, but rather culpability. If any entity—human or robot—intentionally engages in actions that are prohibited by law, then criminal liability may be imposed. (Sometimes, of course, failure to act, a.k.a. negligence, is also grounds for criminal liability.)

Conversely, robots that are sophis­ticated enough to be held criminally liable for their actions may also obtain protections under the law that go beyond those your lawnmower may enjoy. "This situation is similar to corporations, which are non-human legal entities," Hallevy explained in an email. "Corporations are subject to criminal liability, and part of that 'deal' is that they have certain basic rights. Consequently, corporations have the right to sue humans, corporations and even their 'owners' (the stock-holders). If we think of AI entities similarly as corporations, we would not see a significant difference."

In his book, Hallevy elaborates on the notion of corporations as a precedent regarding our potential treatment of robots. They're not individuals, and they have no moral sentiments or thoughts or feelings of any kind; yet we often find them guilty of crimes and impose punishments on them, independently of specific corporate employees who may also be involved in a crime's commission.

While A.I. systems may indeed be criminally liable for acts they commit in certain situations, that doesn't mean they're easily or effectively punishable. As satisfying as it might be to deliver 50 lashes to a robot butler who cuts in line in front of you at Walgreen's, that form of justice would be meaningless to the unfeeling machine.

But as Hallevy writes in his book, some traditional functions of punishment, like rehabilitation and incapacitation, are applicable to A.I. entities. A robot that commits some criminal act and doesn't learn on its own that such acts are prohibited could potentially be "rehabilitated" through reprogramming. And if reprogramming is ineffective, incapacitation for A.I. systems is largely analogous to incarceration for human beings: A killer robot that's locked up or disabled simply won't be able to kill again, regardless of its rehabilitative capacity.

In one light, the notion of heavily manacled Roombas suggests a police state run amok, a totalitarian future where the government's appetite for discipline and punishment extends to whole new classes of beings. What's compelling about Hallevy's perspective is that it involves neither pre-emption of new technologies nor expansion of the law. Instead of banning advances in robotics before they're even implemented or insisting we need to draft a wide range of new regulations, he argues that "the current criminal law is adequate to cope with AI technology." Whatever brave new worlds are coming, perhaps we're already equipped to handle them.

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  1. But how exactly do we punish entities whose consciousness arises from computer code?

    Pull the plug, wipe the code, and re-program it.

    1. “Pull the plug, wipe the code, and re-program it.”

      If only we could do the same with Palin’s Buttplug.

      1. Oh, I thought that’s what we were actually talking about.

        1. Sorry. I’m feeling a little confused this morning.

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  2. How exactly do we punish entities whose consciousness arises from computer code?

    You won’t have to worry until it’s driving a practical electric car powered by a fusion reactor.

    1. Okay. So in other words never.

  3. Look Greg, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

  4. As long as the robots were following procedure, there’s nothing to be done.

    1. The robots conducted an investigation, and determined the robots did nothing wrong.

  5. Prosecute the programmer and/or company that created the robot?

    1. The 1979 Ford assembly line incident seems more like a case of an inattentive worker failing to keep clear of a dangerous machine while in operation than a case of homicide by robot.

      The ridiculous conclusion of the court comes as no surprise. Courts are famous for idiocy.

      With all the important things going on in the world right now this doesn’t seem like the greatest time for humans to load themselves down with fear over problems that exist only in their fantasies.

      Argh! Make it all stop!

  6. “As a society” we don’t do anything, because societies as such don’t act. Only individuals act.
    The question is how individuals will aggregate and exert power to deal with perceived crimes.
    It is dangerously shoddy thinking to start the issue by assuming that there is some entity ‘society’ that will have to, let alone is able to, react or act or reach decisions. Yeah, it’s “just a shorthand” for the underlying reality, but the underlying reality is what drives what actually happens.
    Who is the aggressor? Who is aggressed against? What are the impacts / costs of the aggression and by whom are they born? What are the costs of the various routes for potential redress?
    Everyone from Smith to Coase has insights that can be applied once we get past the nonsense that ‘society’ will or must decide and will or must act.
    The software is exactly as responsible for the unanticipated “crimes” for which it is the proximate cause as the auto is responsible for the death by crushing of members of the crowd hit by the careless driver.
    Responsibility lies with persons, not things.

    1. “As a society” we don’t do anything, because societies as such don’t act. Only individuals act. The question is how individuals will aggregate

      That’s called a ‘society’, for rhetorical purposes it’s easier than saying “this particular aggregation of individuals based on any one of the following; similar philosophy, culture, religion, law, language, geographical area… “.

    1. Does stealing count as “injuring” a human being?

      1. Only when stealing old peoples’ medication.

    2. Those who write the computer viruses and other robotic malware, those anti-technology Luddites, thieves or other rotten types, could well benefit from taking the Three Laws to heart.

  7. What to do when robots break the law

    If it’s Judge LED then HE IS THE LAW.

  8. But how exactly do we punish entities whose consciousness arises from computer code?

    First, get back to me when these things have real consciousness. And before you do that figure out what consciousness even is, because no one has yet even figured that out. Second, dogs have consciousness too. What do we do with them when they harm someone? We hold their owners responsible for the damage and we put the dog down. Why would robots, even magic conscious ones, be any different?

    This is not a hard question. I don’t know why so many journalists and writers keep acting like it is hard.

    1. I don’t know why so many journalists and writers keep acting like it is hard.

      Because they are all navel-gazers with an over-inflated sense of their own intelligence.

    2. This is not a hard question. I don’t know why so many journalists and writers keep acting like it is hard.

      Exactly. Though to be fair, journalists are taught not to think independent of the leftist hivemind.

      You “don’t punish” those entities any more than you punish a horse that kicks a person in the head. Though you might sue the owner or the bailee of the horse. This is not new and laws have reasonably addressed the issue of non-agency no less than several thousand years ago.

  9. And all posts on robots should include the Roomba Cat

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Of2HU3LGdbo

  10. how exactly do we punish entities whose consciousness arises from computer code?

    Lethal SQL injection.

    1. Or maybe with a hanging thread?

      (Yours was better)

  11. Evil AI Robots: The latest panic fad or just 21st century animism?

  12. If human punishments can be applied to robots, does that mean the Asimo can be sentenced to life in prison it kills someone? Sounds more like a ramp-up to asset forfeiture. Once the govt decides it doesn’t like what your bot is doing, it will “seize” it (for the good of society of course).

    1. Unless someone alters your code, your bot shouldn’t be able to do anything you didn’t program it to do including imitate free will. We already have laws that hold people responsible when they design machines that cause death or injury when used as intended.

      I’m really having a difficult time wrapping my head around the sudden over reaction and panic involving today’s robots. IMHO it most likely is stemming from a few big names such as Stephen Hawking jumping on board.

      We wouldn’t put a recalled Chevy or Ford automobile in prison after it’s use resulted in death or injury. Why should we do any different with a bot? The same rules and liabilities should apply regardless of scale of advancement.

      1. What they are not realizing John is that one of two things is going to happen. Either, the robot is incapable of ignoring its code, in which case it is not conscious and is a machine like every other, or it is capable of doing so and is therefore conscience and uncontrollable. I am skeptical we can even build a conscious machine. If we ever do, it would be incredibly dangerous and uncontrollable just like every other conscious being is. Moreover, doing so would defeat the purpose of building the machine in the first place. We build machines because they are predictable and reliable in ways humans aren’t. Consciousness takes that away and thus the excuse for building it in the first place.

  13. When do we arrest guns used in murders?
    Depending on the circumstances, in the vast majority of instances, either the buyer or the seller/manufacturer would be culpable.

    Some academics have WAY too much time on their hands!

  14. Presumably, the robot got off scot-free.

    No account of the incident suggests the robot acted with deliberate malice, or even recklessness, but the incident set the stage for future dystopias nonetheless. We had begun to create a new category of machines that were capable of killing us?and unlike, say, cars, guns, or roller coasters, these new machines were deliberately imbued with a degree of autonomy that could potentially make their behavior somewhat unpredictable. That autonomy would only increase over time.

    There’s nothing novel about it. This exact thing may have happened in 1779 when Joe Jackoff wasn’t paying attention to the donkey powered mill operating independent of human control. Or for that matter this is no different than a farm hand getting killed by an autonomous fleshy machine called an “ox” in 500 B.C.

    There is literally nothing new or novel about it and Mr Beato is being just a bit dramatic.

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  16. ” Whatever brave new worlds are coming, perhaps we’re already equipped to handle them” I like it

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