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AI in the dock: the Trial of Superdebthunterbot
It’s not often that the art world intersects with technology law. But that’s exactly what happened when artist Helen Knowles staged a performance of The Trial of Superdebthunterbot at the Zabludowicz Collection in north London on 26 February.
“A debt collecting company, Debt BB buys the student loan book from the government for more than it is worth, on the condition it can use unconventional means to collect debt. Debt BB codes an algorithm to ensure fewer loan defaulters by targeting individuals through the use of big data, placing job adverts on web pages they frequent. Superdebthunterbot has a “capacity to self-educate, to learn and to modify it’s coding sequences independent of human oversight” (Susan Schullppi, Deadly Algorithms). Five individuals have died as a result of the algorithm’s actions, by partaking in unregulated medical trials. In the eyes of the International Ether Court, can the said algorithm be found guilty?”
The algorithm has realised that unregulated and dodgy jobs generate cash quicker, and steered the vulnerable defaulters towards such jobs. Debt BB is insolvent and the original programmer has died. The case has been brought to the International Ether Court under the Algorithm Liability Act, with Superdebthunterbot standing accused of gross negligence manslaughter.
Participants watched a film of the trial, and then the jury sat down to deliberate (ably aided by audience contributions). The jury was comprised of artists, technologists, legal academics, a futurologist and a Kemp Little Commercial Technology lawyer (Michael Butterworth).
Initially, the jury found it difficult to integrate the premise that an algorithm could be liable for a crime. In the end, Superdebthunterbot was granted a second chance at life, as there were 5 votes for guilty and 7 votes for not guilty. However, the discussion brought out a number of interesting themes:
- The emotional and intellectual difficulties with applying a human-based code of ethics (the law) to machines. The concept of negligence appeared to translate fairly well to independent thinking machines, as the concept of “reasonable foreseeability” is an objective standard, and doesn’t require analysis of any mental state. However, there was a divide between the emotional reaction judging the behaviour as morally wrong and the intellectual desire to impute such behaviour to a rational agent.
- The purpose of punishment, which is a live and controversial debate within human society. The jury was only asked to establish the algorithm’s liability, as sentencing would be left to the judge, but what would be the point of punishing a machine? How would any potential ‘Algorithm Liability Act’ approach the competing strands of punishment: rehabilitation and prevention, retribution; restorative justice (i.e. helping victims overcome the crime) or even redemption?
- The difficulty differentiating between an algorithm, as a piece of code, and its physical implementation in a machine or network. It would have been much easier to find the Superdebthunterbot algorithm liable if it was embodied in a humanoid robot, but it’s much more difficult to do that when the algorithm operates across a network of disparate machines operated by third parties.
- Regulation was a recurring theme. What would this involve? How do we move beyond and improve upon Asimov’s laws? How do we ensure compliance, once the human owners or creators are dead or insolvent? How can regulators keep up with an increasingly complex area of technology? How can the public have meaningful oversight and understanding of the algorithms and the regulators?
- If Artificial Intelligence can be legally responsible for its actions, is a sufficient level of reflexivity or self-understanding required? Jurors drew parallels between legal responsibility for children, where at a certain age individuals are deemed by the law to be responsible for their actions. How would any such maturity level for an algorithm be defined?
- This scenario was not far removed from reality today. It was acknowledged by the jury that this was already happening, although in a less visible way. The value of this piece of art was to make visible and crystallise issues that are already out there. Is the Artificial Intelligence the problem, or is the real issue the conversion of humans into data and then the paternalistic manipulation of the humans in a technical and organisational process?
Despite their differences, there was one thing that every single juror agreed upon: any liability for the Artificial Intelligence must not in any way let the human owners, operators and creators off the hook: a reminder that we are all responsible for the future. Has the weight of freedom ever been so great?