Remember ‘I, Robot’, the Will Smith-starrer on a dystopian future where people live with robots as part of their daily lives? That film had an interesting angle: What if a robot commits a crime?
An incident that happened in Switzerland gives us the first glimpse of such a possibility.
A group of UK-based researchers deployed a bot on the darknet from Switzerland and allowed it to spend $100 in bitcoin per week on the market that lists over 16,000 items, not all of them illegal. The research was conducted by Swiss artists iMediengruppe Bitnik, Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, who coded the Random Darknet Shopper.
Among other things the bot bought were a few ecstasy pills, a fake Hungarian passport, a pair of fake Diesel jeans, and a fake Louis Vuitton handbag – all of them illegal.
You can see all of it here.
The aim of the researchers was to explore the ethical and philosophical implications of illegal markets, which, despite high-profile internationally co-ordinated raids costing millions, persist and flourish.
“The arts should be able to mirror something that is happening in contemporary society in a contemporary way,” says Weisskopf. “We really want to provide new spaces to think about the goods traded on these markets. Why are they traded? How do we as a society deal with these spaces? At the moment there is just a lot of pressure, but not a lot of thinking about stuff, just immediate reaction.”
The question is: Are the owners/programmers of the bot liable for prosecution?
“We are the legal owner of the drugs – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code,” says Smoljo. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”
This, however, does not satisfies everyone, because…
Criminal law in the United States is predominantly statutory. If, for instance, the law says a person may not “knowingly” purchase pirated merchandise or drugs, there is an argument that the artists did not violate the law. But if the law says the person may not engage in this behaviour “recklessly”, then the artists may well be found guilty, since they released the bot into an environment where they could be substantially certain some unlawful outcome would occur.
The law of the United Kingdom it is illegal to purchase a prohibited drug such as ecstasy, but as the National Crime Agency says, “Any criminal liability would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis”.
Any trade involving Bitcoins is restricted in India, which technically means that the entire purchase by the bot becomes illegal.
In most cases, however, the owner cannot be held criminally liable because of the requirement of mens rea (Latin for an “intending mind”).
The intention of the persons who launched the bot was to conduct a research, and they duly displayed all items bought by the bot in an exhibit.
Let us understand this with the laws governing dogs.
If you own a dog classified as a Dangerous Breed as per law, you’ll be held responsible if it bites anyone – even if you have taken precautions against it. But if your dog bites someone on your orders, it is not the dog that’ll face the court of law – it is you.
But what is Darknet?
Darknet is a private network where connections are made only between trusted peers — sometimes called “friends” (F2F) — using non-standard protocols and ports. It is also referred to as the “underground market” on the internet.
So, should we be afraid of robots?
It is too early to say anything convincingly on the possibility of something that depends on a technology still in its infancy. But, with progressive emergence of robots as AI-enabled helpful tools for mankind, one should expect to see some laws in the future.
In case you want to know more, you can read this wonderful piece on the moral hazards and legal conundrums of a future full of robots written by Greg Miller.
Aaand…I am on.