Robots are unquestioningly getting more sophisticated by the year, and as a result, are becoming an indelible part of our daily lives. But as we start to increase our interactions and dependance on robots, an important question needs to be asked: What would happen if a robot actually committed a crime, or even hurt someone — either deliberately or by mistake?
While our first inclination might be to blame the robot, the matter of apportioning blame is considerably more complicated and nuanced than that. Like any incident involving an alleged criminal act, we need to consider an entire host of factors. Let's take a deeper look and find out who should pay when your robot breaks the law.
To help us tackle this issue we spoke to robot ethics expert Patrick Lin, the Director of Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. It was through our conversation with him that we learned just how pertinent this issue is becoming. As Lin told io9, "Any number of parties could be held responsible for robot misbehaviour today."
Robot and machine ethics
Before we get too far along in the discussion, a distinction needs to be made between two different fields of study: robot ethics and machine ethics.
We are currently in the age of robot ethics, where the concern lies with how and why robots are designed, constructed, and used. This includes such things as domestic robots like Roomba, self-driving cars, and the potential for autonomous killing machines on the battlefield. These robots, while capable of "acting" without human oversight, are essentially mindless automatons. Robot ethics, therefore, is primarily concerned with the appropriateness of their use.
Machine ethics, on the other hand, is a bit more speculative in that it considers the future potential for robots (or more accurately, their embodied artificially intelligent programming) to have self-awareness and the capacity for moral thought. Consequently, machine ethics is concerned with the actual behavior and actions of advanced robots.
So, before any blame can get assigned to a robot for any nefarious action, we would need to decide which of these two categories apply. For now and the immediate future, robot ethics most certainly qualifies, in which case accountability should to be attributed to either the manufacturer, the owner, and in some cases even the victim.
But looking further into the future to a time when robots match our own level of moral sophistication, the day is coming when they will very likely to have to answer for their crimes.
For now and the foreseeable future, culpability for a robot that has gone wrong will usually fall on the manufacturer. "When it comes to more basic autonomous machines and systems," said Lin, "a manufacturer needs to ensure that any software or hardware defect should have been foreseen."
He cited the hypothetical example of a Roomba that experiences a perfect storm of confusion — a set of variables that the manufacturer could not have anticipated. "One could imagine the Roomba falling off an edge and landing right on top of a cat," he said, "in which case it could be said that the manufacturer is responsible."
Indeed, because the robot is just operating according to the limits of its programming, it cannot be held accountable for its actions. There was absolutely no malice involved. And assuming that the robot was being used according to instructions and not modified in any way, the consumer shouldn't be held liable either.
Outside intended use
Which, as Lin pointed out, raises another issue.
"It's also possible that owners will misuse their robots and hack directly into them," he said. Lin pointed to the example of home defense robots that are being increasingly used in Asia — including robots that go on home patrol and can shoot pepper spray and paint-ball guns. "It's conceivable that someone might want to weaponize the Roomba," he told io9, "in which case the owner would be on the hook and not the manufacturer." In such a scenario, the robot would act in a way completely outside of its intended use, thus absolving the manufacturer from liability.
But as Lin clarified for us, it's still not as cut-and-dry as that. "Just because the owner modified the robot to do things that the manufacturer never intended or could never foresee doesn't mean they're completely off the hook," he said. "Some might argue that the manufacturer should have foreseen the possibility of hacking, or other such modifications, and in turn build in safeguards to prevent this kind of manipulation."
Blame the victim
And there are still yet other scenarios in which even the victim could be held responsible. "Consider self-driving cars," said Lin, "and the possibility that a jay-walker could suddenly run across the street and get hit." In such a case it's the victim that's really to blame.
And indeed, one can imagine a entire host of scenarios in which people, through their inattention or recklessness, fall prey to the growing number of powerful and autonomous machinery around them.
Machines that are supposed to kill
Complicating all this yet even further is the potential for autonomous killing machines.