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Robots Gone Rogue: Who Pays the Price?

Once upon a time, there were some baby bots. They were sweet and docile and did precisely what they were programmed to do. But fast forward some years, and these bots entered a more rebellious stage. Suddenly, their actions became less predictable, sometimes with very unexpected results.

The Random Darknet Shopper is an automated online shopping program (a “bot”) that trawls the darker markets of the web in search of items to purchase—at, well, random—using $100 in Bitcoins per week. (Bitcoins are an “innovative payment network” and a new form of currency, currently trading at around US $235 per bitcoin.) According to the bot creators, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, a Zurich/London-based group that uses “hacking as an artistic strategy,” this was a form of performance art. “The Random Darknet Shopper is a live Mail Art piece, an exploration of the deep web via the goods traded there.” The randomized purchases were then exhibited at Kunst Halle St. Gallen, a contemporary art gallery near the Swiss Alps through January 11, 2015.

The bot’s initial purchases were interesting, if not particularly remarkable. They included a pair of fake Louis Vuitton handbags, spy gear (a baseball cap with a hidden camera), a Lord of the Rings e-books box set, a pair of Nike sneakers, a decoy letter (used to see if your address is being monitored), and a Platinum Visa card.

But then, like a teenager given unfettered access to Mom’s credit card, the bot went rogue. Suddenly purchases like a falsified Hungarian passport, a set of fire-brigade issued master keys, and 200 Chesterfield cigarettes started appearing in the exhibition.

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Photograph: !mediengruppebitnik/!mediengruppebitnik

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  • Kinnari Shah is an editor, writer, poet, lawyer and mother of two, whose (second) greatest joy in life is unearthing typos on restaurant menus. She received her English and French degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and her law degree from the University of Michigan. In her spare time, she sings with the Oregon Repertory Singers and dreams of the lavender fields of Provence.

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