Art wins, for now: The creators of the Darknet Shopper Bot will not be charged for the MDMA their robot purchased off of a dark net drug market earlier this year, and neither will the robot.
That's good news for Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, the Switzerland-based creators of the exhibit, but the decision leaves an important legal question untested. What happens when robots commit crimes?
If you're not familiar with the Darknet Shopper Bot, here's the deal: Earlier this year, Weisskopf and Smoljo wrote an algorithm that would search Agora, a popular dark net market, pick out an item at random, and buy it. The bot would send the seller an address, and the seller would mail the item to an art gallery, where it was set up in a display case. Twelve of the 13 items the robot purchased were legal. The last was $48 worth of ecstasy, which police in Switzerland seized, along with the other items.
Weisskopf and Smoljo were never charged with a crime, but the objects the bot purchased were in limbo, and, for three months, they believed they were going to be charged with drug possession. Wednesday, they learned no charges would be filed.
"In the order for withdrawal of prosecution the public prosecutor states that the possession of Ecstasy was indeed a reasonable means for the purpose of sparking public debate about questions related to the exhibition," the two wrote on their blog. "The public prosecution also asserts that the overweighing interest in the questions raised by the art work «Random Darknet Shopper» justify the exhibition of the drugs as artefacts, even if the exhibition does hold a small risk of endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited."
"Our job is to produce art, not to go to court. It's not our performance space."
The artists got the 12 legal possessions back Wednesday, and the ecstasy was destroyed. The items will be displayed at upcoming exhibits around Europe (two shows were postponed because the items were in police custody).
It's important to say that, regardless of what a small police department or court in Switzerland decided, the overarching question of how to prosecute or otherwise handle the situation when robots commit crimes was not going to be answered in this case.
That said, if the case had eventually gone to court, it would have been an interesting early test—I spoke to Smoljo and Weisskopf a couple weeks ago, and even they said they were expecting a court battle.
"What we're asking is on a small scale, but mentally, these are questions that will be asked in larger questions in the future. You have a self driving car that crashes and hurts someone, who is responsible? Is it the driver who has no control, is it the company, is it the programmer?" Weisskopf told me.
The purchased items. Image: !Mediengruppe Bitnik
"Our job is to produce art, not to go to court. It's not our performance space. But I do think in this case it'd be really interesting, and we really might think about going to court," she added at the time.
There were three potential outcomes, each with their own ramifications and problems.
1) The artists are responsible, but it's legal under art freedom laws
This is what was ultimately decided, and it's the easiest outcome for the prosecutors in the short term. But now they've created a situation where it's legal for artists to buy drugs to be used as art. "This is something they can't let happen, I'd guess," Smoljo told me.
But it's still easier than deciding that:
2) The artists are responsible, are charged with a crime
The problem here is that it was entirely possible, maybe even likely that Darknet Shopper Bot would have ended up obeying the law. It bought 13 items, 12 of them legal. Can you charge the artists on that basis? Maybe, but it's not a great precedent.
Secondly, what would you charge them with? Possession of drugs is what the prosecutors were investigating.
"But we never possessed the drugs," Weisskopf said. "Usually possession of drugs means you found drugs in somebody's pockets. This is not the case. What do you do with that? For them, it's a bit of a headache. It's a bit of a headache for us, too, but it's really interesting to ask these questions."
3) The robot is responsible
Now you have to ban robots or somehow charge one with a crime and try it in court. Yikes.
It's kind of a letdown that these questions won't be explored here, but surely another case will come up soon.