With most robot-like machines that exist today, any serious problems can be easily traced back to a human somewhere, whether because the machine was used carelessly or because it was intentionally programmed to do harm. But experts in artificial intelligence and the emerging field of robot ethics say that is likely to change. With the advent of technological marvels like the self-driving car and increasingly sophisticated drones, they say we’ll soon be seeing the emergence of machines that are essentially autonomous. And when these machines behave in ways unpredictable to their makers, it will be unclear who should be held legally responsible for their actions.
With their eyes on this apparently inevitable future, some specialists have started to argue that our legal system is woefully unprepared—that in a world in which more and more decisions are made by entities with no moral compass, the laws we have are not enough. In fact, some are arguing that it’s time to do something surprising: to extend our idea of what it means to be an “independent actor,” and perhaps even hold the robots themselves legally culpable.