Concurring Opinions Online Symposium on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents

Remember that New York Times article about all the legal headaches that Google’s autonomous cars are causing? Well, if you found that interesting, you should read on.

On February 14-16, the Concurring Opinions blog will host an online symposium dedicated to a discussion of my book A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents. (Many thanks to Frank Pasquale for organizing this; Concurring Opinions’ online symposiums are quite a treat; in the past it has put on symposiums for on Tim Wu’s Master Switch  and Jonathan Zittrain’s Future of the Internet.) You can find a preview of the book at Amazon. David Coady recently helped launch the book in Melbourne, Australia with some rather witty and personal opening remarks; well worth a read (full disclosure: David is an old friend of mine).

As of now, the stellar line-up of participants includes Ken AndersonRyan Calo, James Grimmelmann, Sonia Katyal, Ian KerrAndrea MatwyshynDeborah DeMottPaul Ohm,  Ugo Pagallo, Lawrence SolumRamesh Subramanian and Harry Surden. The quality, breadth and range of scholarship included in that list is quite awe-inspiring. I look forward to reading their responses and discussing the book’s arguments and analysis with them.

The following is the Introduction to the book (Chapter 2 of the book was published in the Illinois Journal of Law, Technology and Policy, and can be found online at SSRN; I will post more excerpts from the book in the next couple of weeks):

Social and economic interactions today increasingly feature a new category of being: the artificial agent. It buys and sells goods; determines eligibility for legal entitlements like healthcare benefits; processes applications for visas and credit cards; collects, acquires and processes financial information; trades on stock markets; and so on. We use language inflected with intentions in describing our interactions with an artificial agent, as when we say “the shopping cart program wants to know my shipping address.” This being’s competence at settling into our lives, in taking on our tasks, leads us to attribute knowledge and motivations, and to delegate responsibility, to it. Its abilities, often approximating human ones and sometimes going beyond them, make it the object of fear and gratitude: it might spy on us, or it might relieve us of tedium and boredom.

The advances in the technical sophistication and autonomous functioning of these systems represent a logical continuation of our social adoption of technologies of automation. Agent programs represent just one end of a spectrum of technologies that automate human capacities and abilities, extend our cognitive apparatus, and become modeled enhancements of ourselves. More than ever before, it is coherent to speak of computer programs and hardware systems as agents working on our behalf. The spelling checker that corrects this page as it is written is a lexicographic agent that aids in our writing, as much an agent as the automated trading system of a major Wall Street brokerage, and the PR2 robot, a prototype personal robotic assistant (Markoff 2009). While some delegations of our work to such agents are the oft-promised ones of alleviating tedious labor, others are ethically problematic, as in robots taking on warfare roles (Singer 2009). Yet others enable a richer, wider set of social and economic interconnections in our networked society, especially evident in e-commerce (Papazoglu 2001).

As we increasingly interact with these artificial agents in unsupervised settings, with no human mediators, their seeming autonomy and increasingly sophisticated functionality and behavior, raises legal and philosophical questions. For as the number of interactions mediated by artificial agents increase, as they  become actors in literal, metaphorical and legal senses, it is ever more important to understand, and do justice to, the artificial agent’s role within our networks of social, political and economic relations. What is the standing of these entities in our socio-legal framework? What is the legal status of the commercial transactions they enter into? What legal status should artificial agents have? Should they be mere things, tools, and instrumentalities?  Do they have any rights, duties, obligations? What are the legal strategies to make room for these future residents of our polity and society? The increasing sophistication, use, and social embedding of computerized agents makes the coherent answering of older questions raised by mechanical automation ever more necessary.

Carving out a niche for a new category of legal actor is a task rich with legal and philosophical significance. The history of jurisprudence addressing doctrinal changes in the law suggests legal theorizing to accommodate artificial agents will inevitably find its pragmatic deliberations colored by philosophical musings over the nature and being of these agents. Conversely, the accommodation, within legal doctrines, of the artificial agent, will influence future philosophical theorizing about such agents, for such accommodation will invariably include conceptual and empirical assessments of their capacities and abilities. This interplay between law and philosophy is not new: philosophical debates on personhood, for instance, cannot proceed without an acknowledgement of the legal person, just as legal discussions on tort liability are grounded in a philosophical understanding of responsibility and causation.

This book seeks to advance interdisciplinary legal scholarship in answer to the conundrums posed by this new entity in our midst. Drawing upon both contemporary and classical legal and philosophical analysis, we attempt to develop a prescriptive legal theory to guide our interactions with artificial agents, whether as users or operators entering contracts, acquiring knowledge or causing harm through agents, or as persons to whom agents are capable of causing harm in their own right. We seek to apply and extend existing legal and philosophical theories of agency, knowledge attribution, liability, and personhood, to the many roles artificial agents can be expected to play and the legal challenges they will pose while so doing. We emphasize legal continuity, while seeking to refocus on deep existing questions in legal theory.

The artificial agent is here to stay; our task is to accommodate it in a manner that does justice to our interests and its abilities.

Lorin Stein on Ben Lerner’s Adam: An Aspiring Poet’s Worries

In reviewing Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station (“The White Machine of Life”, New York Review of Books, December 8 2011, Vol 58, Number 19), Lorin Stein notes that Adam, the novel’s central character, is “a poet who doesn’t have much feeling for poetry, for art in general.” And this poet is confronted a by profound and–for him, crucial–worry: that he was “incapable of having a profound experience of art” and as such,

I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet…I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professor had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.

My interest in this excerpt is not so much in the conclusion of our budding poet’s anxiety-ridden thought, but in its initial prompt: that he might be blocked from a particular sort of relationship with art, evidence for which, as the excerpt shows, lies in his being incapable of constructing his own personal relationship with poetry, and finding himself reliant instead on having expert guides do all the heavy lifting.

Adam’s worry, of course, only seems peculiar because he aspires to be a poet; it is a common enough source of angst. Reading poems requires the ability to move past its bare surface, past the barriers of sometimes sparse and spare description, a challenge that can sometimes defeat even those with an acute poetic sensibility; we cannot keep our poetry receptors switched on at all times, and on those occasions, we stare blankly at verse, wondering why this seemingly banal, opaquely phrased assemblage of words, lines and paragraphs has evoked so much literary and philosophical exegesis and reflection. At those moments we can experience the kind of panic that is Adam’s constant companion: Have I been condemned to exclusion from the sphere of aesthetic appreciation, from the ranks of those for whom art can function as passage to the sublime? Will I spend this life with my nose pressed up against the glass panes, looking on enviously at those who do not suffer so? And it is then that we entertain the unkind, yet self-validating and reassuring, doubt that racks Adam: perhaps it’s all a giant sham, merely the latest instance of the Cosmos’ New Clothes.

The antidote for this anxiety can be, as in the case of Adam, a gentle guidance, some hand-holding and accompaniment. Some of us will never move beyond this stage. Others will find that perhaps the ‘secret’ of experiencing poetry is that we must continue ‘reading’ even when not confronted by the written word, that our task of having a ‘poetic experience’ extends to our experience of the world, the source of the poet’s imagination. In the enrichment of that lies perhaps our best chances of enriching our relationship with the poem and the poet.

Marcus Aurelius On Correcting Others

In his Meditations (Book One), Marcus Aurelius offers us a lesson in constructive criticism:

From Alexander the grammarian, [I learned] to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion.

This thoughtful little remark has–as I’m sure many have noted before me–considerable normative import for both pedagogy and personal interaction. Aurelius’ concern seems only to extend to those committing grammatical gaffes but the general principle at the heart of this meditation is easily extended to a wider range of application.

When translated into slightly colloquial English, Aurelius says quite straightforwardly:

Don’t put people down if they commit a mistake, rather, by doing it right yourself, provide a good example worthy of emulation.

A classic example of the kind of situation where Aurelius’ meditation would find perspicuous application would be one familiar to us all: in the midst of a conversation, one participant–I don’t think it matters whether it is a native speaker or not–grossly mispronounces a word that is not obscure, that has been in usage for a considerable period of time, that has a well-established ‘correct’ or ‘canonical’ pronunciation. By this act, our offender announces, as subtext, his seemingly bizarre lack of exposure to what should be common, mundane, knowledge; those that don’t possess it seem to be barbarously ignorant.

The quick, public, correction of this mistake is almost certain not to progress happily; the one making the correction is going to be hard pressed to restrain the incredulous tone of voice, and those listening to the little lesson will not find it easy to not squirm. The response to the lesson, needless to say, is very likely to be acute embarrassment or a toxic mix of resentment and humiliation. Which, as can be imagined, is likely to set off a corresponding cycle of defensive responses and vain attempts to salvage the social encounter at hand.

The virtues of Aurelius’ injunction are quite transparent: by following it, by simply using the word quickly and correctly in the continuing conversation, one is able to be modest, kind, and usefully instructive. Besides, by providing the correct example for emulation, one is able to engage in a form of practice and skillful deployment. By not correcting the offender visibly and cruelly, we are able to cultivate our kinder selves, and to resist the temptingly arrogant display of our greater facility or ability. Viewed in this light, we might even be able to consider the subject of our instruction as having provided us an opportunity for positive self-construction, for a little practice in humility and in deflating our own pretensions.

But even more importantly, by resisting the temptation to correct instantaneously, by declining the offices of policeman, prosecutor and judge, we can reinforce a simple lesson about language and communication: If you did understand the word your offender intended to use, then why bother with the public correction?

Time-Travel and Psychotherapy

For some time now, my favorite, bordering-on-juvenile–after-dinner or sometimes-online–parlor game has been to ask the following question(s): If you could use a time-machine, where and when would you want to visit? And would you rather be a fly on the wall, or a participant? (Incidentally, that should really be where-when; we’re in the 21st century now, and the Special Theory of Relativity is more than a hundred years old.)

I find the answers to this question–and my asking of it–revealing in more ways than one. There is the National Geographic answer: I wanna see dinosaurs! (I’m not ridiculing anyone; I too would like to witness those original Planet Earth Gangstas in the flesh, albeit from a safe distance.) Then there is the History Channel Travel Tour: I’d like to see Napoleon in action, Constantinople during the glory days of the Ottomans, or perhaps Michaelangelo hard at work on the Sistine Chapel.

But by far the most interesting kind of answer is the one where my respondent suggests they’d like to use the time machine to engage in a little personal archaeology: visiting their home-town in a period before their birth, seeing their parents’ first date, and perhaps most trippily, visiting an older self. (I’ve provided variants of this kind of answer at times when my question has been turned back on me.) I don’t think these answers are simple nostalgia-mongering, the sentiments underlying which are nowhere better revealed than in the irresistible urge we sometimes have to jump into and through an old photograph. Rather, I think the space-time points that are intended to serve as destinations in these answers reveal that abiding fascination of ours for getting to the root of ourselves, perhaps as clue to present pathology, perhaps as solutions to enduring conundrums created by our lack of auto-transparency. In this kind of answer, time-travel is just another name for self-discovery.

To travel thus, would be to engage in a form of speculative discovery most familiar to those that have spent much time in the clinic, and on the couch, accompanied by the therapist, holder of the mirror that reflects our autobiographical confessions back to us. And the advantages of supplementing–and for some, perhaps even replacing–the fifty-minute paid-for session, controlled by sometimes seemingly Svengali-like figures could seem tempting. Those long, rambling, sometimes-tentative tramps through our memories, through whose nooks and crannies we need to be guided, all the while anxious about whether we might just be engaged in a form of elaborate self-serving fiction, could then perhaps be replaced by a glorious bonanza of empirical verification. This is how it happened, this is what ‘really’ took place; and so, I whip out my lab notebook and scribble notes, filing them away for future reference, recall and guidance.

And as I said, if these answers are revelatory, so is the asking of the question that prompted them. For in trying to elicit responses to it, it is clear I seek to inquire whether others are just as perplexed as I am, and don’t mind a little fantasizing as antidote.

Nietzsche on CEOs And Insider Trading

CEO hagiography has a long and well-established tradition in our time. Despite the–sometimes really well-written–mountains of evidence to suggest that they do little to deserve the size of their pay packets–which grow ever more obscene and disconnected from reality, and despite a nagging feeling that especially in the world of modern finance, a CEO’s success is very often either rigged or a fluke or both, very little real diminishment of their halos has actually taken place. This is isn’t entirely unsurprising; part of the beauty of the CEO myth is that while the CEO remains Perennial Uberman, towering over our puny selves, able to catch glimpses of distant lands that he will navigate us to while we scratch around in his shadows, we are reassured that we might too, someday, scale those very heights (and look down, contemptuously of course, at those we left in our wake).

The creation of this myth is central to the maintenance of our current economic system, and the figure of the CEO has a large role to play in it. And given that much of the myth-making media machinery is controlled–in monopolistic fashion–by those CEOs themselves, the maintenance, embellishment, and active sustenance of this story-telling is not too difficult, and indeed, is pursued enthusiastically–unfortunately, it must be pointed out, with active co-operation from those most hurt by it.

It should not be forgotten too, that the cult of the CEO taps into an almost irresistible fallacy: that of the lone author, creator, or agent. This fallacy is central to the maintenance of most nonsense written about ‘intellectual property’ today, and as the legions of shrieking ‘unpaid artists’ who clog up blog comments spaces demonstrate, its hold is also hard to shake. Dispelling this fallacy is going to be even harder than denting the armor of the CEO; this one is more personal, more important to the maintenance of a particular self-image, more central to our notion of ourselves as independent, freely-acting agents, able to single-handledly influence our fates and fortunes.

As I’ve noted before, Nietzsche has a line for everything. (The way I’m quoting him, it might appear they are all in one text.) Anyway, without further ado, from Human, All Too Human, Chapter 8 “A Glance At The State”, Section 449:

The apparent weather-makers of politics. – Just as the people secretly assume that he who understands the weather and can forecast it a day ahead actually makes the weather, so with a display of superstitious faith, even the learned and cultivated attribute to great statesmen all the important changes and turns of events that take place during their term of office as being their own work, provided it is apparent that they knew something about them before others did and calculated accordingly- thus they to are taken for weather-makers – and this faith is not the least effective instrument of their power.

PS: I have linked above to Gideon Haigh’s Fat Cats: The Cult of the CEO, quite possibly the best takedown of CEO mythology out there. You will laugh, you will cry; sometimes you’ll do both. Go read it.

Milton’s Satan, Heaven and Hell, And The Mind

A few posts ago, in writing about the detritus that can be found on professor’s office doors, I had recounted a little self-indulgent story about first finding Cavafy’s The City. Today, I want to point you to another ‘found’ poem–more accurately, a fragment–located, not on an office door but rather, in a budding poet’s workspace. My discovery and reading of the fragment were notable because a) to date, it remains my central point of contact with its larger whole; b) because I ascribed a meaning to the fragment without reading the poem itself, and c) because my imagined narrator turned out to be very different from the one who actually speaks the line.

Circa 1995, as I slogged through my coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center, I found myself drawn, through a variety of circumstances, into a circle of ‘friends’–the quotemarks are an attempt to indicate the ambiguity of the relationship–that included a young graduate of a writing program at Emerson College, who lived, as befitted those New Yorkers that aspired to a Bohemian life, in a shared loft space in Brooklyn. I think it was Williamsburg, but it might well have been Bushwick. My memory fails me and not just because it was a long time ago: I was almost always inebriated when I visited that ‘space.’

One night, while stumbling around our poet’s loft in the midst of yet another episode of beer-drinking, I noticed a line from John Milton‘s Paradise Lost, printed out on a piece of paper and stuck above a desk. It read–as I remembered it, and quoted it for years:

What Matter Heaven or Hell, If I Remain the Same?

That line as I read it, and cited it, had a simple moralizing function. I used it to argue against escapism, and for the need for self-reconfiguration in psychological crisis; it made subjectivity central to any project of change, whether external or internal. I had not read Paradise Lost (confession: I have still not read it in its entirety), and knew little of this line’s location in its narrative and thus, remained oblivious of the identity of its narrator.

The actual line is a little different:

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

And these lines, of course, are spoken by the ‘fallen Archangel,’ Satan himself. And for him, they become part of the defenses he erects to protect himself against the Fall and the loss of Heaven: the displacement is permanent, but so long as his spirit and his consciousness are as ever before, all is not lost. They are an assertion of what persists, endures, survives, and is the key to flourishing in the midst of such terrible loss. I had used the line to indicate the locus of desired change; Milton has Satan employ it to indicate his resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity.

In doing so, in making Satan proclaim his ability to traverse Heaven and Hell with equal facility, to employ his mind to transcend the particularity of both, Milton made Satan almost heroic.

Failing To Scuba Dive

For many years, a prominent member of a short list I maintained of things-I-must-do-before-I-die was: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. In December 2007, I went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and a few short minutes later, it was all over. I was back up at the ocean surface, gasping for breath, relieved to be alive, my heart pounding. Back on the boat, my diving instructor suggested I discontinue diving. I nodded my head, disappointed, yet secretly overcome by a wave of heartfelt relief. I had realized the truth of a statement I had always subconsciously subscribed to: I was more comfortable hiking 15,000 feet above sea level than I was swimming 15 meters below.

Three days prior to this disaster I had enrolled in diving classes run by a dive operator based in Cairns, Queensland. The classes were part theory, part practice in a swimming pool. On the very first day, the claustrophobia induced by the scuba apparatus became apparent to me as I struggled to overcome the instincts evoked by the wearing of a device that made it seem like a Darth Vader heavy-breathing soundtrack was on continuous loop. Still, I somehow worked through the various drills with the rest of the class, lagging at times, and often requiring an instructor to check in on my progress.

At the end of the second day though, it wasn’t clear I had mastered an essential emergency drill, that of being able to replace a mask and breathing regulator underwater. I went back under to practice again, and emerged triumphant. Sort of. Even at this early stage, I had mixed feelings; I wasn’t feeling comfortable underwater, and while I had been able to carry out all the emergency drills needed, I wasn’t sure if I could actually carry them out in a good-to-honest crisis without panicking.

I soon found out. The next day, we headed out in a boat to the Reef, and got into the water. I headed down to the bottom, ably escorted by my diving buddy, one of the very patient instructors that had worked with me to make sure I had mastered the emergency procedures. A few minutes later, my mouthpiece came loose. Even as an electric bolt of fear ran through me, I reinserted the mouthpiece and blew through it to clear it (as trained). But the taste of salt water in the mouthpiece persisted, and nothing at that moment could convince me that I wasn’t about to drown. My entire body convulsed with panic again as I grabbed my ‘buddy’s’ arm (and as he desperately tried to calm me); I wanted up and out, and waved frantically upwards. We headed up for the surface.

Diving was a surreal experience; I was stunned and entranced by the beauty of coral reefs and their flora and fauna, but that beauty could not override the tremendous claustrophobia and lack of freedom I felt in the scuba apparatus. I spent some time snorkeling later so that I could continue to check out the Reef’s attractions, but I knew diving was not for me.

There are times when I am struck by the silliness of it all: I must be member of an exceedingly tiny minority that is not able to scuba dive. Kids do it; old farts do it; but I can’t. The fear I experienced that day was real, and all my training was unable to overcome it. Still, I suppose, there is some virtue in having tried it out under the shadow of a known fear, in an effort to master it.