If Your Robot Commits Murder, Should You Go to Jail?
Self-driving cars aren't the only emerging technology facing major questions about ethics and accountability.
Jerry Kaplan is widely known in the computer industry as a serial entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, and author. He is currently a Fellow at The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics. He also teaches Philosophy, Ethics, and Impact of Artificial Intelligence in the Computer Science Department, Stanford University.
Kaplan co-founded several ventures including Winster.com (social games); Onsale.com (online auctions); GO Corporation (tablet computers); and Teknowledge (expert systems). He wrote a best-selling non-fiction novel entitled “Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure”, selected by Business Week as one of the top ten business books of the year, and optioned to Sony Pictures, with translations available in Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese. His latest book is titled Humans Need Not Apply.
Kaplan co-invented numerous products including the Synergy (first all-digital keyboard instrument, used for the soundtrack of the movie TRON); Lotus Agenda (first personal Information manager); PenPoint (tablet operating system used in the first smartphone, AT&T's EO 440); the GO computer (first tablet computer) and Straight Talk (Symantec Corporation's first natural language query system). He is also co-inventor of the online auction (patents now owned by eBay) and is named on 12 U.S. patents.
He has published papers in refereed journals including Artificial Intelligence, Communications of the ACM, Computer Music Journal, The American Journal of Computational Linguistics, and ACM Transactions on Database Systems.
Kaplan was awarded the 1998 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Northern California; served on the Governor’s Electronic Commerce Advisory Council Member under Pete Wilson, Governor of California (1999); and received an Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from California International Business University, San Diego, California (2004).
He has been profiled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Red Herring, and Upside, and is a frequent public speaker.
Jerry Kaplan: There’s a whole other set of issues about how robots should be treated under the law. Now the obvious knee-jerk reaction is well you own a robot and you’re responsible for everything that it does. But as these devices become much more autonomous, it’s not at all clear that that’s really the right answer or a good answer. You go out and you buy a great new robot and you send it down the street to go pick you up a Frappuccino down at Starbucks and maybe it’s accidental, but it’s standing at the corner and it happens to bump some kid into traffic and a car runs the kid over. The police come and they’re going to come and arrest you for this action. Do you really feel that you’re as responsible as you would be if you had gone like this and pushed that kid into traffic? I would argue no you don’t. So we’re going to need new kinds of laws that deal with the consequences of well-intentioned autonomous actions that robots take. Now interestingly enough, there’s a number of historical precedents for this. You might say well how can you hold a robot responsible for its behavior? You really can actually and let me point out a couple of things.
The first is most people don’t realize it. Corporations can commit criminal acts independent of the people in the corporation. So in the Deepwater Horizon Gulf coast accident, as an example, BP oil was charged with criminal violations even though people in the corporation were not necessarily charged with those same criminal violations. And rightfully so. So how do we punish a corporation? We punish a corporation by interfering with its ability to achieve its stated goal; make huge fines as they did in that particular case. You can make the company go out of business. You can revoke its license to operate, which is a death penalty for a corporation. You can have it monitored as they do in antitrust cases in many companies. IBM, Microsoft, I think, have monitors to make sure they’re abiding by certain kinds of behavioral standards. Well that same kind of activity can apply to a robot. You don’t have to put a robot in jail, but you can interfere with what it’s trying to do. And if these robots are adaptable, logical, and are learning. They’ll say well I’ll get it, you know. I can’t do that because my goal is to accomplish something in particular and if I take this particular action, that’s actually going to be working against my interest in accomplishing that situation.
So rehabilitation and modification of robot behavior, just as with a corporation is much more logical than you might think. Now another interesting historical precedent is prior to the Civil War there were a separate set of laws that applied to slaves. They were called the slave codes. And slaves were property. But interestingly enough, the slave owners were only held liable under certain conditions for the actions of their slaves. The slaves themselves were punished under — if they committed crimes. And so we have a historical precedent for the kinds of ways in which we can sort this out so that you are not in constant fear that your robot is going to bump into somebody and you’re going to go to jail for 20 years for negligent homicide or whatever it might be.
Just like automated vehicles, robots and advanced AI will require new sets of laws to define the extent of owner liability and accountability. Creating these laws will require an important ethical discussion: Who is at fault when a robot misbehaves? According to author Jerry Kaplan, there is a precedent for creating codes and consequences for robots that do not apply to others. Take, for example, the fact that criminal charges can be brought against corporations rather than the people operating beneath the corporate shell. Similarly, we can develop laws that would allow robots and their programming to stand trial.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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