It was with some surprise that I saw that the creator of the Silk Road website was so harshly sentenced to life imprisonment for what was described as a drug trafficking enterprise. As you may recall, Silk Road was the dark web commerce site where drugs and contraband were sold for Bitcoins. While there was a certain debate as to the harshness of the sentence, there seemed to be no surprise that the sentence was being handed down at all. In this age of internet impunity, it seems like someone being held responsible for their online actions are more the exception the rule. While I do feel sorry for Mr. Ulbrict, one can only applaud in the hope that this is the beginning of some internet accountability, that one’s avatar will be as accountable as their flesh and blood actions. While this may require some rethinking of our idea of a corporation as an avatar, remember, corporations do have many of the legal rights of people and receive few consequences from their illegal actions, maybe we are growing up in this new digital realm.
While the idea of artificial intelligence is nothing new, it was still surprising to see the article, “MEPs vote on robots’ legal status” addressing the possibility of granting legal rights to robots with artificial intelligence or electronic persons. While this in itself seems like a mind-boggling thought, it is also being debated if these electronic people should come with kill switches, which would shut down the robot if the situation were required. Beyond the disturbing thought that robots would have legal status the same as their human counterparts, the thought of a kill switch brings up a more disturbing question.
The idea of what has legal rights also extends to a corporation, legally they can spend money in candidate elections, and that some for-profit corporations may, on religious grounds, refuse to comply with a federal mandate to cover birth control in their employee health plans. Would we extend these rights to an electronic person? Could their rights be covered under the bill of rights? While it may seem absurd, 40 years ago the idea of an electronic entity with the rights of a person would have been seemed absurd too.
And what of the question of a kill switch? Having just come through a time when corporations were considered too big to fail, why would we not deem our electronic persons too important to shut down or too large to kill?