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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.

Photograph: !mediengruppebitnik/!mediengruppebitnik

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Then it bought 10 ecstasy pills.

Photograph: !mediengruppebitnik/!mediengruppebitnik

Mike Power of the Guardian asks the question: “Can a robot, or a piece of software, be jailed if it commits a crime? Where does legal culpability lie if code is criminal by design or default? What if a robot buys drugs, weapons, or hacking equipment and has them sent to you, and police intercept the package?”

Ironically, the gallery is situated next door to a police station, but the artists say they are not afraid of legal repercussions of their bot buying illegal goods. They acknowledge “[w]e are the legal owner of the drugs – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code…. But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”

Would Mom be as understanding?

Apparently, the Swiss weren't either. While they did let the exhibition run its course, on January 12, 2015, the day after the exhibition closed, local Swiss authorities seized the contraband items. The artists insist in a statement published on their blog that "the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art," and argue that it is "an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions."

Perhaps. But can we really let these bots go rogue in the name of Art? After all, we need someone to be accountable. And jailing a bot might be going a bit(coin) too far.