If Your Robot Buys Illegal Drugs, Have You Committed a Crime?

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A group of Swiss artists recently set a bot free on the darknet, allowing it to purchase whatever it could with Bitcoins. Among other weird things it bought were a few ecstasy pills and a fake Hungarian passport. Now an attorney asks whether the artists could be arrested under the law as it currently stands.

University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo, who studies the legal implications of robotics, has a piece on Forbes about a thought experiment he did last year on this topic. At the time, he was just musing about what would happen if a robot bought something illegal online and mailed it to its owner as a surprise. He writes:

Given that criminal law commonly requires mens rea (Latin for an "intending mind"), it would seem the recipient of the package, even if she programmed the bot herself, might not be held criminally liable. After all, she intended to surprise herself, not to purchase contraband. This and other examples of emergent behavior create the interesting prospect of crimes without perpetrators, or so I argue.


But now this hypothetical has become real (or at least as real as an art project can ever be). And Calo has more to say about how the laws might be interpreted in the U.S. The issue is that crimes are often defined by statutory law, created by local legislatures, so we might see a range of outcomes:

Are these artists liable for what the bot bought? Maybe. In the United States, at least, criminal law is predominantly statutory. We would have to look to the precise wording of the federal or local law and then apply it to the facts at hand. 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. Whereas if the law says the person may not engage in this behavior 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. I presume they even wanted the bot to yield illegal contraband to make the installation more exciting. Wanting a bad outcome doesn't make it illegal (you cannot wish someone to death), but purposefully leaving the bot in the darknet until it yielded contraband seems hard to distinguish from intent.


Have you recklessly unleashed your bot on the internet today? Watch out — if it commits a crime, you may be held accountable in court.

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