Ecstasy Robots, Frankenstein, and Self-Driving Cars: A Call for Legislation on Inventor Responsibilities

May 11, 2015

If a robot commits an act (either crime or tort) the creator did not intend – should the creator be held responsible?  In January, 2015, Swiss police decided not to punish a group of “artists” whose robotic art installation purchased random items from the internet each week.  The robot purchased a Hungarian passport, “fake Diesel jeans, a Sprite can with a hole cut out in order to stash cash, Nike trainers, a baseball cap with a hidden camera, cigarettes and the “Lord of the Rings” e-book collection.”  But the issue arose when the robot purchased ecstasy pills, which are illegal in Switzerland.  Police did not press charges against the artists because they “decided the Ecstasy that is in this presentation was safe and nobody could take it away. [The art group] never intended to sell it or consume it so we didn’t punish them.”

The issue arose when the robot purchased ecstasy pills, which are illegal in Switzerland.

Would police in the United States be so lenient?  21 U.S.C. §844 criminalizes mere possession of controlled narcotics. The exact wording is “knowingly or intentionally to possess.”  In the Swiss example, the collection of items was being displayed in an art museum as an artistic interpretation of “dark web online shopping.”  Had this occurred in the United States it is possible that criminal charges could have been pressed against the museum for knowingly possessing the Ecstasy.
But the idea of an inventor dealing with the ramifications of his or her inventions is far from novel.  In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein creates a “monster” of various body parts.  After giving the “monster” life, the monster requested that the Doctor create a bride for him.  Dr. Frankenstein acquiesced creating a monster bride—but killed it for fear of creating a race of monsters.  As vengeance the monster killed Dr. Frankenstein’s wife.  This notion of creators and inventors dealing with the ramifications of their experiments is far from uncommon in literature (for another fun story read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot).
There are many corporations around the world working on robots and artificial intelligence.  The notion of who is responsible for the robot will be an increasing issue, which should be addressed by legislation.  One issue is in regards to self-driving cars, and who is responsible for the car’s actions.  (The Geneva Convention has already noted that every vehicle should have a driver who is at all times able to control the vehicle.)  But, if a fully autonomous vehicle (operating without driver input or even a driver) is at fault in a collision with another vehicle is the car company, the owner, or the rider responsible for the collision?  Arguably, if the rider cannot have any input over the car, they should not be held responsible (as it would be similar to a taxi).  So then will the car’s manufacturer, responsible for the entirety of the programming, navigation, and steering, assume all responsibility for every autonomous vehicle it produces?
Another similar issue is faced with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) – there are certain UAVs on the commercial market that the user only indicates on a digital map where the UAV is to fly.  If the UAV deviates from the flight path planned by the user due to faulty programming and causes some harm – should the company be to blame?
The development of robots will raise a variety of unique legal questions.  Is a crime a robot commits attributable to the inventor?  What standard will we apply to intent crimes – committed by a robot?  Must the inventor assume all of the robots possible actions and specifically prevent each illegal outcome?  These questions should be addressed sooner rather than later to ensure inventors know their legal responsibilities and liabilities.