virus: Electronic Agents and Responsibility

Reed Konsler (
Tue, 21 Oct 1997 14:46:58 -0400 (EDT)

With reference to the "Nateman ---> Nametag affair"

I think, Richard, that Tad and Sodom are correct, at least
from a legal perspective (admittedly a level-2 system). You
are resposible for the actions of your electronic agents.

In the American legal system, responsibility for any action
falls to the entity which most clearly fills the role of "intentional
agent". Expressions of this are the "insanity defense" (the
defendant wasn't an intentional agent) and the "self-defense"
exception for homicide (the defendant was intentional, but
only within options circumscribed by the threat of death).

Trials evoking "self-defense" tend to revolve around the
defendant's belief state at the time of the incident instead
of the "facts". For instance, if I hold an authentic toy
gun at your head and threaten to kill you it is the fear
for you life which is considered a restriction of your
options (thereby rendering you temporarily non-intentional)
and not the "fact" that the object I was hold only resembled
a weapon.

The focus on intentional agents is also primary in civil law.
Patent rights and copyright are usually given to the individual
which best fits the definition of "author" (creative, intentional
agent). This leads to wonderfully byzantine decisions in which
a team of doctors can remove a man's spleen and patent cell
lines from it themselves while not even telling him about it.

The source of the spleen in this case is simply a natural resource.
Having a mutated spleen has nothing, in the eyes of the court,
to do with creativity or work and is thus not worthy of intellectual
property rights.

The doctors, on the other hand, are very like "authors" and thus
MUST receive intellectual property rights in order to encourage
their former research.

The impication of these (and other) decisions is that you do not
have the right to copyright things like your own genome, your
fingerprints, etc. Intellectual propoerty law is pretty fluxional
right now, so look for things to change (in what direction?)
in the next few decades.

Anyway, this issue is important becuase as computers advance
we are going to enter an age where many social and economic
transactions are carried out on our behalf by electronic agents.

The first generation of these agents are list-serv daemons and,
yes, spelling and grammar checkers. These agents are devices
that appear intentional, they effect an environment according
to a program.

Now, I recognize the exasperation that any user of Microsoft
Office goes through as a dozen click-menus appear in between
the beginning and end of even simple transactions. However,
as a user, on always has the option of disabling the systems
that "auto-correct" things. For instance, my version of Word
insisted that only the first letter of a Word could be capitalized,
changing DNA to Dna and NaCl to Nacl. A little digging
found the button that killed the daemon.

As electronic agents become more ubiquitous and more of
our routine decision-making is abdicated to these devices the
question of who is responsible for the actions of this distributed
intentional system becomes more and more relevant. I think
this question is, however, simply an old philosophical problem
in new relief.

And the arbitrary solution which is likely to be used is the
same solution: we will hold the figure that is most apparently
an intentional entity responsible for the actions of the entire
distributed system. The same paradigm that inheres intellectual
property rights to an "author" also inheres responsibility for
electronic agents to their master.

Now, of course, this is a discussion within a "Level-2" framework
of quasi-legal discussion. I agree with Richard that, philosophically,
the responsibility for the actions of a distributed system is ambigious.
Individual people are a melange of intentions, some dervied from
genetic and some from memetic programming. "The Devil made me
do it", "My genes made me do it", "My memes made me do it",
"My spell-checker made me do it". All of these are similar
explainations in that they shift intentionality away from the individual
and on to some other (usually implied or theoretical) entity.

The philosophical question is, in my opinion, squarely in Richard's
corner: intentionality, free will, is an ambigious concept and any
system which attempts to define it arbitrarily will produce contradictions.

However, such arbitrary definitions are required by the circumstances
of our existence. We must make decisions. The paradigm which is
common in Western culture is that of the canonical author. According
to this paradigm it is Richard, through his electronic agent, that altered
"Nateman" to "Nametag". It would, in principle, be no different if
Richard argued that his fingers were momentarily possesed by demons.

In conclusion: Richard can believe and assert any explaination for his
actions he likes. In this case, however, the bias of cultural context
disagrees with him, in my opinion. I believe that, in this case, the
cultural context is a compromise I support.

We must be willing to hold individuals responsible for the actions of
their electronic agents. This imperative will only become more
relevant in the future.

Reed Konsler