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How to Punish Robots If They Turn Against Us

Gabriel Hallevy is a professor at Ono Academic College’s Faculty of Law in Kiryat Ono, Israel. He specializes in criminal law and in particular the interface between criminal law and new technologies, such as robots and other machines equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). His new book, out next month, is When Robots Kill: Artificial Intelligence under Criminal Law.

Edited excerpts of our interview:

Question: A lot of people would assume that criminal responsibility should lie with the manufacturer and owner of a robot, rather than with the robot himself (or herself).

Answer: Well, if we impose criminal responsibility on the robot itself, it does not mitigate liability on the part of the programmer or the manufacturer or the user.

Q: So you’re adding liability to the robot, rather than shifting it from the manufacturer?

A: Yes. The criminal liability of a robot is additional to the current criminal liability. The current criminal liability of the manufacturer is very limited. You can impose liability on the programmer or manufacturer only by negligence, if we’re talking about AI, because the manufacturer can claim in court that the robot has learned by itself how to commit the offense and perhaps the user taught the robot what should he do or not, so he is majorly responsible for the commission of the offense.

Q: A lot of criminal law relies on subjective mental states. An intentional homicide is punished more harshly than one caused by negligence, for instance. How can the law make judgments on robots based on such factors?

A: The current definitions in criminal law are too narrow and as a result today in most modern legal systems, including the American legal system, we have no legal process to impose criminal liability upon machines.

The key term here is “awareness.” Generally in order to impose criminal liability we must impose two elements: the central element, and the mental element.

The central element means the act. You cannot be criminally liable for homicide unless you take the knife or the gun and stab or shoot the victim. A machine can do that as well. A robot could have arms, it could move, etc.

The problem is with the mental element. In most criminal codes, including in America and Israel and most Western European countries, awareness is the key term for the mental element. In most criminal offenses, there should be proven awareness of the offender. For humans, when we ask ourselves “what is awareness?”, we think about the very deep philosophical significance of what it means to be aware. But in criminal law the definition is very narrow. It is the capability of absorbing sensual data and processing it. …

The robot, and AI since the 1980s, has this ability when a robot is equipped with cameras. South Korea started to use robots a few years ago as prison guards. So they’re moving through the center of the prison, and when they see something that moves, they only have to identify if it is a prisoner who is trying to escape. If they identify that this is the situation, they start a process of alarming the human guards. This is awareness.

The problem is that when we think of the typical murderer or the typical rapist in non-legal terms, we think about the murderer as an evil person, the rapist as an evil offender.

But evil is not required here. What is required is only awareness. In some offenses there are additional requirements like specific intent. In murder we require that.

But intent is derived by the awareness. You must be aware in order to intend something. In the current technology, we have the capability to do that. We have the capability of applying awareness by the criminal law definition to machines. …

I’m not calling for the imposition of criminal liability on machines. The point here is to call for a change in the criminal law and its narrow definitions, by stating that either you have to accept the possibility of imposition of criminal liability on non-human entities, as we have done since the 17th century on corporations, or that we should change the legal definitions. This is the point.

Q: A question many people would probably have is, “But how do you punish a robot?”

A: This is a wonderful question. After all, if you can impose liability and you can’t punish the robot, what have we done here?

The rule is very simple. Any punishment that we may impose on humans, we can impose it both on corporations and on the robot, or any other non-human entity. You need some fine-tuning adjustments. We can impose imprisonment on corporations.

We have no problem with it. I’m not talking about putting in prison the people who are managing the corporations. The legal technique for corporations is to ask, “What is the meaning of imprisonment?” It’s to negate its freedom. The freedom of any corporation is the legal capability to make business. Therefore, when you impose six years imprisonment on a corporation, you cannot allow the corporation during this period to do business.

For robots, the same technique may lead to different consequences. What is the meaning of the certain punishment on the robot? It means to negate its freedom, the freedom to commit its useful daily tasks. So you ban him from doing the daily tasks.

I don’t think that imprisonment for robots would be effective as it is for humans. There are other punishments that may be effective on robots than on humans. For any corporation the most effective punishment isn’t imprisonment. It’s a fine. For robots, I can think of community service. For example, in the near future when I hire the services of a robot to help me with my daily task, and the robot commits a criminal offense, for the next few months it may help the community by helping in the library, cleaning the streets or such other things that contribute to the community.

Punishment can be adjusted to the robot. Of course, the death penalty, if we still have this punishment, would be the simple solution of a shutdown. If there is no other option, you must cease his life, and that means to shut the robot down.