Robots are starting to break the law and nobody knows what to do about it

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Maybe it's a sign that robots are growing up, and thus hitting the rebellious stage.

The Random Darknet Shopper, an automated online shopping bot with a budget of $100 a week in Bitcoin, is programmed to do a very specific task: go to one particular marketplace on the Deep Web and make one random purchase a week with the provided allowance. The purchases have all been compiled for an art show in Zurich, Switzerland titled The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland, which runs through January 11.

The concept would be all gravy if not for one thing: the programmers came home one day to find a shipment of 10 ecstasy pills, followed by an apparently very legit falsified Hungarian passport— developments which have left some observers of the bot's blog a little uneasy.


If this bot was shipping to the U.S., asks Forbes contributor and University of Washington law professor contributor Ryan Calo, who would be legally responsible for purchasing the goodies? The coders? Or the bot itself?

In the U.S., Calo ponders, criminal law is statutory, meaning that the wording of the law itself would have to be taken into consideration.


"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," he said. "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."

But, Calo adds, since the program was being made for an art show, "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."


For their part, coders Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo say that they are assuming full responsibility for the bot's actions and for the illegal contraband, even though the gallery is ironically located next door to a police station.

“We are the legal owner of the drugs – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code," Smoljo told the Guardian. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”


Fine. Yet that still leaves Calo's worries unaccounted for. As of now, it is still unclear what the implications of cases like this will have for our future interactions with robots and machines.

"What seems more and more clear is that issues like these will go from hypotheticals, to art installations, to everyday facts of life," he said. "And I have to wonder how ready we are."


Update on 1/16: The Random Darknet Shopper just got seized by Swiss authorities, who at least waited until the art show was over before moving in. On the bot's blog, organizers posted the following statement:

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.


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.