In the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, creates Ultron as a peacekeeping autonomous robot platform. Imbued with advanced artificial intel- ligence, Ultron decides that humanity is beyond saving
and should be cleansed from the Earth. The slick, shiny robots
in the superhero film Avengers: Age of Ultron have no regard
for the consequences of breaking the law or for causing compensable injuries and property damage.
Fear not, for the Avengers assemble to
combat Ultron’s terrible plans and save
Robots in the real world are becoming more like Ultron,
with once-unthinkable levels of intelligence and decision-mak-ing ability. And in the real world, any injuries or damage these
robots cause will have consequences. This leads to the question
of how to treat artificially intelligent beings and their operators or owners for the purposes of civil liability. The answer
depends, in part, on whether robots are treated as products
or as agents and on how policy makers decide to apportion
responsibility for robot actions, whether accidental or intentional. If “dumb robots” are categorized as products and “smart
robots” are categorized as agents, then each robot domain has
an appropriate and well-known legal framework in which to
evaluate liability outcomes.
Most robots sold today on the civilian market are small,
personal service units such as the popular Roomba vacuum
cleaner, a device that is not capable of deciding whether to
carry out any actions that might intentionally harm someone.
It arguably ranks in the “dumb robot” category because it lacks
the intelligence to autonomously deviate from preprogrammed
actions, much less present an unreasonable risk of injuring
people. However, the iRobot Warrior, manufactured by the
same company, is a military android with software that would
allow it to shoot a machine gun by itself at targets that meet
certain criteria. Although not artificially intelligent in the same
sense as Ultron, the Warrior robot is a smart robot because it
can decide to fire its weapon, which can either intentionally or
negligently cause harm to a person.
It makes sense to treat a dumb robot as a product because
people willingly buy these devices to help them in their daily
lives. Regardless of the intentions of the buying public, dumb
robots also are manufactured on a massive, generalized basis
rather than for any specific customer. Such products are invited
into people’s homes and workplaces without any assumption
that the products might injure or kill. In the event that a product does cause harm, a well-developed body of law on product
liability exists in every state and in many countries.
The law also is well-developed with respect to how to handle principals and agents—the latter are those who act on
behalf of principals. In virtually all U.S. jurisdictions, the principal is liable without being personally at fault for the actions
of his agent while the agent acts on behalf of the principal.
There are exceptions for situations where the principal did
When Robots Attack, Who’s Liable?
BY ANDREW G.
not know about, authorize or ratify the agent’s conduct, or
where the agent obviously exceeded the scope of his authority.
In such cases, other rules apply, and various multifactor tests
determine whether the principal should bear liability. This
approach is more nuanced than strict product liability and
would afford more choices for juries and courts faced with
claims for robot-caused injuries.
The impetus for treating smart robots differently than dumb
robots is the devices’ ability to make decisions that bear a
risk of harm. The risk of smart robots making bad decisions
should fall on the principal who authorized them to act on
the principal’s behalf. Those who benefit from working with a
smart robot also must bear the burden of risk associated with
operating such devices.
Compounding the classification problem is that true artificial intelligence (AI) might obviate the need for a distinction
between dumb and smart robots. Although society has not
yet succeeded in developing AI, it appears within reach. In a
world where potentially every device people interact with is
intelligent and can make rational decisions, it seems possible
that the AI itself would be liable for mistakes. This is because
the law imposes liability for certain actions based on the mental state of the entity that caused harm. In other words, if a
person set in motion a process that resulted in AI but bore no
control over the contraption when it caused harm, there is no
reason to presume that the person caused the harm.
This is consistent with recent scholarship on AI, which suggests that future machine life will be independent of human
control and develop its own ecosystem in which machines
work, live and play in their own worlds. To impose liability
on a person because of actions carried out by an autonomous
intelligent machine defies current legal theories, which only
hold people liable for things that are within their control. However, it might be wise to consider present legal principles when
developing a future body of law that appropriately balances
the competing interests of control, liability, agency and other
aspects of AI. In terms of law and policy, the legislative branch
should take an active role in examining AI and setting forth
specific guidance in a comprehensive robot code. Otherwise,
the courts and the public will have to rely on old principles that
do not perfectly apply to the issues AI presents.
Andrew G. Watters is a litigation attorney with a side venture
in research and development. He is the Young AFCEAN coordinator for the Silicon Valley Chapter of AFCEA.
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contact: Andrew G. Watters, email@example.com