Can robots break the law?

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An interesting case has been developing in recent weeks, which might lead us to look at liability of artificial intelligence agents. A Swiss art collective named !Mediengruppe Bitnik has created a web bot that trawls marketplaces in the darknet armed with a number of bitcoins, and then displays the purchases as part of an exhibition.

The adequately named Random Darknet Shopper made international news when it purchased 10 pills of ecstasy, which were adequately displayed as part of the exhibition, and now have been seized by Swiss authorities.

No arrests have been made, and as far as I can tell, the bot has not been shut down. This leads me to ask the question in the title, can autonomous agents break the law? Could the artists in the collective be held liable for the purchase? Could a court order the bot to be shut down?

The artists explained the seizure:

“On the morning of January 12, the day after the three-month exhibition was closed, the public prosecutor’s office of St. Gallen seized and sealed our work. It seems, the purpose of the confiscation is to impede an endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited by destroying them. This is what we know at present. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art. We’d also like to thank Kunst Halle St. Gallen for their ongoing support and the wonderful collaboration. Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions.”

Is there such a thing as freedom of art? I am highly sceptical.

My knowledge of criminal law is minimal, but I would be very surprised if the artists could be held criminally liable… probably it has something to do with mens rea, criminal law is always about mens rea, innit? However, there are all sorts of other interesting issues taking place, such as the continuing availability of drug purchasing websites that are completely off the radar. As long as the laws continue as they are, it is possible that we will continue to see cases such as the above.

Comments 1

  1. Interesting issue.
    I think the human (that supposedly is giving the order to the robot) should be liable. Art or no art involved.
    Let’s suppose that a human is sending a robot to shoot living beings in a forest. It’s called hunting, right? Legal, right? And it shoots down a nice 12 year old girl (let’s call her … little Red Riding Hood, just for an example), is the human liable? But he/she was doing something “allowed by society”.
    About freedom of art: yes it is dead, but this is no news. And anyway, the general public couldnt care less, as long as they have their daily doses of Facebook and WhatsUP.

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