Is It a Crime If Your Robot Buys Illegal Drugs Online?

By John Lavitt 02/05/15

One law professor argues that the answer is ambiguous at best.

Vintage Toy Robot
All your drugs are belong to us. Shutterstock

As an experiment to test Internet boundaries, a pair of Swiss artists recently sent an online robot onto the dark web with a pocketful of Bitcoins to buy anything and everything it could find. While most of the items were legal, their robot did happen to purchase some illegal drugs, raising questions about the legality of such an action.

London-based Swiss artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, better known as !Mediengruppe Bitnik, coded the Random Darknet Shopper, an automated online shopping bot, to buy various items online. The virtual robot was instructed to spend $100 in Bitcoin per week on a darknet market that lists over 16,000 items.

Weisskopf and Smoljo ultimately constructed a performance piece designed around the weird stuff their robot acquired, including a pair of fake Diesel jeans, a baseball cap with a hidden camera, a stash can, a pair of Nike trainers, a fake Hungarian passport, 200 Chesterfield cigarettes, a set of fire-brigade issued master keys, a fake Louis Vuitton handbag, and 10 ecstasy pills. All of it was put on display in an exhibition that closed on January 11.

Since the bot bought the illegal ecstasy pills and the contraband Hungarian passport, the line into criminal behavior was crossed. The question now being raised in Switzerland is whether these artists could be arrested under the law as it currently stands. If your online robot buys illegal drugs and contraband, are you yourself guilty of a crime?

Although no outcome has been decided, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo previously investigated the topic in paper called Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw. In the paper, Calo argued that “robotics has a different set of essential qualities than the Internet and, accordingly, will raise distinct legal issues. Robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with the capacity to do physical harm; robotic systems accomplish tasks in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance; and robots increasingly blur the line between person and instrument.”

After learning about the Swiss artists, Calo wrote an article for Forbes where he asked a tough question as the title of the piece: A Robot Really Committed A Crime: Now What? Calo did his best to answer his own question in the piece.

“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 wrote. "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."

"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," Calo said.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.