When Robots Break the Law or Write Their Own Masterpieces - Andrea Matwyshyn Debates Law Cases of the Future

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on December 31, 2015


Our technology-bound way of life is evolving much more quickly than our legal system is designed to govern it. For a glimpse into what some of the future law challenges may be, last month’s Real Future Fair came up with hypothetical legal cases based on the assumed evolution of current technologies. They presented these ‘law cases of the future’—liability when robots break the law, copyright issues when they write their own masterpieces, and criminal consequences of algorithms that kill—to three legal experts and asked them to debate how the cases would be resolved under current law and how our laws need to evolve to handle them.


Northeastern University law professor Andrea Matwyshyn joined Robot, Robot, & Hwang’s Tim Hwang, and Electronic Frontier Foundation copyright activism director Parker Higgins in this lively debate.


Below are excerpts from Professor Matwyshyn’s discussion of the—as of now—fictional cases outlined in Fusion’s Law & Order 2045: Here Are 3 Legal Cases from the Future.”


Scenario #1 - People V. Dronimos

Drone-imos is a pizza joint that uses Smoogle’s self-driving cars to make its deliveries. The cars have been programmed to deliver pizzas within 30 minutes or they’re free. The car routes its map to a house and realizes that, with traffic, it won’t make it unless it goes 15 mph over the speed limit the whole way. (This is within its allowable law-breaking parameters.) On the way there, a child runs into the road and is struck by the robo-car.


Matwyshyn: I predict that Smoogle will make the pizza company sign a contract when it licenses the cars that requires them to take on the liability. So Dronimos would be the responsible party. But there would also be questions about whether the manufacturer was patching security holes and updating the car’s system appropriately. Right now, for example, some autonomous cars’ sensors aren’t sensitive enough to detect squirrels so there’s potentially massive squirrel death happening now. So a question for Smoogle is whether the car is designed to be sensitive enough to detect a small child’s movement.


Scenario #2 – Writers V. A.I. Rowling

A programmer named A.I. Rowling designs a bot that tracks young adult reading trends. It tracks what kinds of books are bubbling up as most popular, feeding them into an artificial intelligence that consumes all the books. The bot then writes its own fiction: a three-volume series about teens sent to Mars to play Survivor whose camp is raided by alien vampires. It turns into a best-seller—selling more copies than Twilight, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games combined—and spawns a movie and a TV series that make a gazillion dollars.


Matwyshyn: One of the interesting questions is whether the process by which A.I. Rowling writes this book is substantially different from a human who would read those 80 books and then write her own. It’ll probably depend on how the algorithm does its writing—whether it’s grabbing blocks of texts as a whole or instead mimicking patterns of writing.


Scenario #3 – The Algorithm Defense

The Minority Report future has arrived. Social networks and advertising campaigns are everywhere on every surface. All devices talk to you—and they are constantly peppering you with ads. A young man who is a casual fan of first-person shooter games and horror movies finds he’s constantly being targeted with more and more gory entertainment options, til it’s all snuff porn all the time on his TV. His refrigerator and coffee machine won’t stop telling him about gun sales. On the self-driving bus, it’s all ads for hockey masks, ski masks, and biographies of serial killers. His phone keeps presenting him with ads about how he’s going to be alone forever, alongside ads for military equipment. When he murders someone, he says the algorithms made him do it.


Matwyshyn: Well, he’ll definitely go to prison. Beyond that, the providers of the advertising will say he consented to receive ads. What we see here is an emergent construct: the various advertisers don’t know the ads other advertisers are showing this guy, so they’ll also argue they didn’t realize they were pushing him over the brink. They’ll say, “We had nothing to do with it. We shouldn’t be liable.”


Read the full article on Fusion: “Law & Order 2045: Here Are 3 Legal Cases from the Future


Andrea M. Matwyshyn is a legal academic studying technology innovation and its policy implications, particularly corporate information security regulation and consumer privacy. She is currently a professor of law/professor of computer science (by courtesy) at Northeastern University, a faculty affiliate of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, and a visiting research collaborator at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, where she was the Microsoft Visiting Professor during 2014-15.


Her book, Harboring Data: Information Security, Law, and the Corporation, looks at common mistakes companies make, which breaches go unreported despite notification statutes and surprising weaknesses in the federal laws that regulate financial data privacy, children's data collection and health data privacy.