Category: Legal Theory

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LTAAA Symposium: Complexity, Intentionality, and Artificial Agents

I would like to respond to a series of related posts made by Ken Anderson, Giovanni Sartor, Lawrence Solum, and James Grimmelmann during the LTAAA symposium. In doing so, I will touch on topics that occurred many times in the debate here: the intentional stance, complexity, legal fictions (even zombies!) and the law. My remarks here will also respond to the very substantive, engaged comments made by Patrick O’Donnell and AJ Sutter to my responses over the weekend. (I have made some responses to Patrick   and AJ in the comments spaces where their remarks were originally made).

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LTAAA Symposium: Response to Pagallo on Legal Personhood

Ugo Pagallo, with whom I had a very useful email exchange a few months ago, has written a very useful response to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents.  I find it useful because I think in each of his four allegedly critical points, we are in greater agreement than Ugo imagines.
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LTAAA Symposium: Response to Surden on Artificial Agents’ Cognitive Capacities

I want to thank Harry Surden for his rich, technically-informed response  to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, and importantly, for seizing on an important distinction we make early in the book when we say:

There are two views of the goals of artificial intelligence. From an engineering perspective, as Marvin Minsky noted, it is the “science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men” (Minsky 1969, v). From a cognitive science perspective, it is to design and build systems that work the way the human mind does (Shanahan 1997, xix). In the former perspective, artificial intelligence is deemed successful along a performative dimension; in the latter, along a theoretical one. The latter embodies Giambattista Vico’s perspective of verum et factum convertuntur, “the true and the made are…convertible” (Vico 2000); in such a view, artificial intelligence would be reckoned the laboratory that validates our best science of the human mind. This perspective sometimes shades into the claim artificial intelligence’s success lies in the replication of human capacities such as emotions, the sensations of taste and self-consciousness. Here, artificial intelligence is conceived of as building artificial persons, not just designing systems that are “intelligent.”

The latter conception of AI as being committed to building ‘artificial persons’ is what, it is pretty clear, causes much of the angst that LTAAA’s claims seem to occasion. And even though I have sought to separate the notion of ‘person’ from ‘legal persons’ it seems that some conflation has continued to occur in our discussions thus far.

I’ve personally never understood why artificial intelligence was taken to be, or ever took itself to be, dedicated to the task of replicating human capacities, faithfully attempting to build “artificial persons” or “artificial humans”. This always seemed such like a boring, pointlessly limited task. Sure, the pursuit of cognitive science is entirely justified; the greater the understanding we have of our own minds, the better we will be able to understand our place in nature. But as for replicating and mimicking them faithfully: Why bother with the ersatz when we have the real? We already have a perfectly good way to make humans or persons and it is way more fun than doing mechanical engineering or writing code. The real action, it seems to me, lay in the business of seeing how we could replicate our so-called intellectual capacities without particular regard for the method of implementation; if the best method of implementation happened to be one that mapped on well to what seemed like the human mind’s way of doing it, then that would be an added bonus. The multiple-realizability of our supposedly unique cognitive abilities would do wonders to displace our sense of uniqueness, acknowledge the possibility of other modes of existence, and re-invoke the sense of wonder about the elaborate tales we tell ourselves about our intentionality, consciousness, autonomy or freedom of will.

Having said this, I can now turn to responding to Harry’s excellent post.
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LTAA Symposium: Response to Matwyshyn on Artificial Agents and Contracting

Andrea Matwyshyn’s reading of the agency analysis of contracting  (offered in A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents and also available at SSRN) is very rigorous and raises some very interesting questions. I thank her for her careful and attentive reading of the analysis and will try and do my best to respond to her concerns here. The doctrinal challenges that Andrea raises are serious and substantive for the extension and viability of our doctrine. As I note below, accommodating some of her concerns is the perfect next step.

At the outset, I should state what some of our motivations were for adopting agency doctrine for artificial agents in contracting scenarios (these helped inform the economic incentivizing argument for maintaining some separation between artificial agents and their creators or their deployers.

First,

[A]pplying agency doctrine to artificial agents would permit the legal system to distinguish clearly between the operator of the agent i.e., the person making the technical arrangements for the agent’s operations, and the user of the agent, i.e., the principal on whose behalf the agent is operating in relation to a particular transaction.

Second,

Embracing agency doctrine would also allow a clear distinction to be drawn between the authority of the agent to bind the principal and the instructions given to the agent by its operator.

Third, an implicit, unstated economic incentive.

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LTAAA Symposium: Artificial Agents and the Law of Agency

I am gratified that Deborah DeMott, whose work on agency doctrines was so influential in our writing has written such an engaged (and if I may so, positive)  response to our attempt, in A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, to co-opt the common law agency doctrine for use with artificial agents. We did so, knowing the fit would be neither exact, nor precise, and certainly would not mesh with all established intuitions.
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Robots in the Castle

In thinking about what Samir and Lawrence offer us in their new book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, I am reminded of the old Gothic castle described in Blackstone’s Commentaries, whose “magnificent and venerable” spaces had been badly neglected and whose “inferior apartments” had been retro-fitted “for a modern inhabitant”.

Feel me, here, I am not dissing the book but, rather, sympathizing about law’s sometimes feeble ability to adapt to modern times and its need to erect what Blackstone described as mass of legal “fictions and circuities”, leaving the law not unlike the stairways in its castle—“winding and difficult.”

Understanding this predicament all too well, I am not surprised to see Ryan Calo’s disappointment in light of the title and description of the book, which seemed to me also to promise something much more than a mere retrofitting of the castle—offering up instead a legal theory aimed at resurrecting the magnificent and venerable halls of a jurisprudence unmuddled by these strange new entities in a realm no longer populated exclusively by human agents.

Samir and Lawrence know full well that I am totally on board in thinking that the law of agency has plenty to offer to the legal assessment of the operations of artificial entities. I first wrote about this in 1999, when Canada’s Uniform Law Commission asked me to determine whether computers could enter into contracts which no human had reviewed or, for that matter, even knew existed. In my report, later republished as an article called “Spirits in the Material World,” I proposed a model based on the law of agency as a preferable approach to the one in place at the time (and still), which merely treats machine systems as an extension of the human beings utilizing them.

At the time, I believed the law of agency held much promise for software bots and robots. The “slave morality” programmed into these automatic beasts seemed in line with those imagined in the brutal jus civile of ancient Rome, itself programmed in a manner that would allow brutish Roman slaves to interact in commence with Roman citizens despite having no legal status. The Roman system had no problem with these non-status entities implicating their owners. After all: Qui facit per alium facit per se (A fancy Latin phrase designating the Roman Law fiction that treats one who acts through another as having himself so acted). What a brilliant way to get around capacity and status issues! And the modern law of agency, as it subsequently developed, offers up fairly nuanced notions like the “authority” concept that can also be used to limit the responsibility of the person who acts through an (artificial) other.

The book does a great job at carrying out the analysis in various domains and, much to my delight, extends the theory to a range of situations beyond contracting bots.

In my view, the genius of agency law as means of resurrecting the castle is that it can recognize and respond to the machine system without having to worry about or even entertain the possibility that the machine is a person. (For that reason, I would have left out the chapter on personhood, proposals for which I think have been the central reason why this relatively longstanding set of issues has yet to be taken seriously by those who have not taken the blue pill). Agency law permits us to simply treat the bot like the child who lacks the capacity to contract but still manages to generate an enforceable reliance interest in some third party when making the deal purporting to act on the authority of a parent.

But in my view—I thought it then and I think it still—using agency rules to solve the contracting problem is still little more than scaffolding used to retrofit the castle. As my fave American jurist, Lon Fuller, might have described it, the need to treat bots and robots as though they were legal agents in and of itself represents the pathology of law:

“When all goes well and the established legal rules encompass neatly the social life they are intended to regulate, there is little occasion for fictions. There is also little occasion for philosophizing, for the law then proceeds with a transparent simplicity suggesting no need for reflective scrutiny. Only in illness, we are told, does the body reveal its complexity. Only when legal reasoning falters and reaches out clumsily for help do we recognize what a complex undertaking the law is.”

The legal theory of both Blackstone and Fuller tell me that there is good reason to be sympathetic to the metaphors and legal fictions that Samir and Lawrence offer us—even if they are piecemeal. To be clear: although the “legal fiction” label is sometimes pejorative, I am not using it in that sense. Rather, I am suggesting that the approach in the book resembles a commonly used juridical device of extremely high value. Legal fictions of this sort exhibit what Fuller recognized as an “exploratory” function; they allow a kind of intellectual experimentation that will help us inch towards a well-entrenched legal theory.

Exploring the limits of the agency rules may indeed solve a number of doctrinal problems associated with artificial entities.

But (here I need a new emoticon that expresses that the following remark is offered in the spirit of sincerity and kindness) to pretend that the theory offered in this book does more than it does or to try to defend its approach as a cogent, viable, and doctrinally satisfying unified field theory of robotics risks missing all sorts of important potential issues and outcomes and may thwart a broader multi-pronged analysis that is crucial to getting things right.

I take it that Samir is saying in his replies to Ryan that he in fact holds no such pretense and that he does not claim to have all of the answers. But that, in my view, was not Ryan’s point at all.

My take-away from that exchange, and from my own reflections on the book, is that it will be also very important to consider various automation scenarios where agency is not the right model and ask ourselves why it is not. This is something I have not yet investigated or thought about very deeply. Still, I am willing to bet a large pizza (at the winner’s choice of location) that there are at least as many robo-scenarios where thinking of the machine entity as an artificial agent in the legal sense does more harm than good. If this is correct, agency law may offer some doctrinal solutions (as my previous work suggests) but that doesn’t in and of itself provide us with a legal theory of artificial agents.

When asked to predict the path of cyberlaw in 1995, Larry Lessig very modestly said that if he had to carve the meaning of the 1st Amendment into silicon, he was certain that he would get it fundamentally wrong. There hadn’t been enough time for the culture of the medium to evolve to be sure of right answers. And for that very reason, he saw the slow and steady march of common law as the best possible antidote.

I applaud the bravery of Chopra and White in their attempt to cull a legal theory for bots, robots and the like. But I share Ryan’s concerns about the shortcomings in the theory of artificial agents as offered. And in addressing his concerns, rather than calling Ryan’s own choice of intellectual metaphors “silly” or “inappropriate,” it might be more valuable to start thinking about scenarios in which the agency analysis offered falls short or is inapplicable and what other models we also might consider and for what situations.

I surely do not fault the authors for failing to come up with the unified field theory of robotics—we can save that for Michael Froomkin’s upcoming conference in Miami!!!—but I would like us to think also about what the law of agency cannot not tell us about a range of legal and ethical implications that will arise from the social implementation of automation, robotic and artificial intelligence across various sectors.

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Neil Richards on Why Video Privacy Matters

Our guest blogger Neil Richards, a Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law, turns his sights on video privacy in this guest blog post.  It whets our appetite for his forthcoming book on Intellectual Privacy.  So here is Professor Richards’s post:

The House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a fairly obscure a law known as the Video Privacy Protection Act.  This law protects the privacy of our video rental records.  It ensures that companies who have information about what videos we watch keep them confidential, and it requires them to get meaningful consent from us before they publish them.  The House, at the urging of Netflix and Facebook, has passed an amendment that would allow these companies to share our movie watching habits much more easily.  The Video Privacy Act was passed after the Washington City Paper obtained the video rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and published them in order to politically discredit him.  It worked.  The Video Privacy Act rests on the enduring wisdom that what we watch is our own business, regardless of our politics.  It allows us to share films we’ve watched on our own terms and not those of video stores or online video providers.

What’s at stake is something privacy scholars call “intellectual privacy” – the idea that records of our reading habits, movie watching habits, and private conversations deserve special protection from other kinds of personal information.  The films we watch, the books we read, and the web sites we visit are essential to the ways we make sense of the world and make up our minds about political and non-political issues.  Intellectual privacy protects our ability to think for ourselves, without worrying that other people might judge us based on what we read.  It allows us to explore ideas that other people might not approve of, and to figure out our politics, sexuality, and personal values, among other things.  It lets us watch or read whatever we want without fear of embarrassment or being outed.  This is the case whether we’re reading communist or anti-globalization books; or visiting web sites about abortion, gun control, cancer, or coming out as gay; or watching videos of pornography, or documentaries by Michael Moore, or even “The Hangover 2.”

For generations, librarians have understood this.  Libraries were the Internet before computers – they presented the world of reading to us, and let us as patrons read (and watch) freely for ourselves. But librarians understood that intellectual privacy matters.  A good library lets us read freely, but keeps our records confidential in order to safeguard our intellectual privacy.   But we are told by Netflix, Facebook, and other companies that the world has changed.  “Sharing” as they call it is the way of the future.  I disagree.  Sharing can be good, and sharing of what we watch and read is very important.  But the way we share is essential.  Telling our friends “hey – read this – it’s important” or “watch this movie – it’s really moving” is one of the great things that the Internet has made easier.  But sharing has to be done on our terms, not on those that are most profitable for business.  Sharing doesn’t mean a norm of publishing everything we read on the Internet.  It means giving us a conscious choice about when we are sharing our intellectual habits, and when we are not.

Industry groups are fond of saying that good privacy practices require consumer notice and consumer choice.  The current Video Privacy Act is one of the few laws that does give consumers meaningful choice about protecting their sensitive personal information.  Now is not the time to cut back on the VPPA’s protections.  Now is the time to extend its protections to the whole range of intellectual records – the books we buy, our internet search histories, and ISP logs of what we read on the Internet.  As a first step, we should reject this attempt to eviscerate our intellectual privacy.

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Understanding Dignity

My brilliant colleague and co-author Leslie Meltzer Henry is a thought leader on dignity’s jurisprudential and philosophical implications.  University of Pennsylvania Law Review just published her engrossing and important piece entitled “The Jurisprudence of Dignity.”  I’m hoping to have a longer conversation about the piece in the future.  For now, here is the abstract:

Few words play a more central role in modern constitutional law without appearing in the Constitution than “dignity.” The term appears in more than nine hundred Supreme Court opinions, but despite its popularity, dignity is a concept in disarray. Its meanings and functions are commonly presupposed but rarely articulated. The result is a cacophony of uses so confusing that some critics argue the word ought to be abandoned altogether.

This Article fills a void in the literature by offering the first empirical study of Supreme Court opinions that invoke dignity and then proposing a typology of dignity based on an analysis of how the term is used in those opinions. The study reveals three important findings. First, the Court’s reliance on dignity is increasing, and the Roberts Court is accelerating that trend. Second, in contrast to its past use, dignity is now as likely to be invoked by the more conservative Justices on the Court as by their more liberal counterparts. Finally, the study demonstrates that dignity is not one concept, as other scholars have theorized, but rather five related concepts.

The typology refers to these conceptions of dignity as institutional status as dignityequality as dignity, liberty as dignity,personal integrity as dignity, and collective virtue as dignity. This Article traces each type of dignity to its epistemic origins and describes the substantive dignitary interests each protects. Importantly, the typology offers more than a clarification of the conceptual chaos surrounding dignity. It provides tools to track the Court’s use of different types of dignity over time. This permits us to detect doctrinally transformative moments, in such areas as state sovereign immunity and abortion jurisprudence, that arise from shifting conceptions of dignity.

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The Relationship Between Theory and Practice

The longstanding attacks on legal scholarship all seem to assume a particular relationship between theory and practice, one that I believe is flawed.  Recently, I responded to one such critique.  There are others, with Justice Roberts and many other judges and practitioners claiming that legal scholarship isn’t worth their attention and isn’t useful to the practice of law.

It seems to me that those making these critiques assume that the primary value of legal scholarship should be to (1) describe current legal doctrine to make legal research easier for practitioners; or (2) influence an immediate and direct change in the law.  In an earlier post, I argued that #2 above is an unreasonable standard.  Legal change is slow, and rarely will one article have a direct influence.  Rarely does one thing have a direct influence — change typically occurs more through an indirect influence by numerous sources.  Only in the movies or in simplistic historical accounts will we see one article or book lead to dramatic changes.  Of course, it occasionally happens, but rarely.

In this post, I want to tackle claim #1.  The treatise writers and doctrinal legal scholarship of yesteryear has diminished, though it isn’t gone.  Last I checked, there were quite a lot of treatises written by quite a lot of law professors.  But there is today a lot more theoretical scholarship.  Is this scholarship valuable if it doesn’t help in legal research?

The answer is yes for many reasons:

1. As with all humanities, the value of any particular work is hard to quantify.  What’s the value of Kafka’s The Trial or works by Shakespeare?  What’s the value of reading history?  What’s the value of learning things that don’t have direct application to one’s career?  I believe there’s a lot of value.  Reading these works opens up new ways of thinking, sparks new ideas, and helps people understand the world differently.  This can indirectly affect one’s legal practice skills by enhancing creativity, improving one’s writing style, or making one see the facts of a case in a different light. It is interesting that many of the great jurists were also avid readers of literature.  Indeed, many of the great thinkers and writers throughout history had wide-ranging intellectual interests and reading habits.  Would people like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson be as creative if they had more narrow and workmanlike intellectual exploration?  Probably not.  Would Justice Holmes have been as great without his love of the humanities?  I doubt it.

2. There is a value in critiquing legal decisions and laws, even if the critique winds up remaining in dissent.  Why do justices bother to write dissents?  After all, it often takes decades if not 40-50 years for the Supreme Court to change the law.  They write dissents in the hope that one day the Court will see things differently.  They write them to make a record.  There is a value in criticizing legal opinions and laws even if it doesn’t immediately result in a change.  Indeed, many of the critiques of legal decisions and laws that I read in legal scholarship are very powerful ones.  Courts and lawmakers should pay more attention, as the scholarship often reveals logical flaws in reasoning, clear errors in applying precedent, assumptions that are based on faulty facts, assumptions that are wrong based on empirical evidence, or assumptions that are contrary to widely-accepted conclusions in science or social science.   Courts and legislatures may hide their heads in the sand, but that shouldn’t be a justification for criticizing legal scholarship — it should be a basis for criticizing courts and lawmakers.

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The Usefulness of Legal Scholarship

A reader of my post about the N.Y. Times critique of legal education writes, in regard to the value of legal scholarship:

I happen to be on the editorial board of a T14 law school’s law review, so I have to cite check and read articles regularly. Of those I’ve read, I can’t think of a single one I thought would be useful to a practicing lawyer. The problem is, in my experience, most seem to advocate a fundamental change in philosophy to an area of law that diverges from what precedent would suggest. To me, this seems extremely unhelpful, because A. Lower courts aren’t likely to accept a grand new theory that seems to contradict what SCOTUS is saying, B. As far as I can tell SCOTUS seems not to usually change its theory either, and C. I don’t think most policymakers tend to read law review articles.

This leads me to be inclined to believe that most law review articles are useless. Are you saying my sample is unrepresentative of what’s out there? Or do I simply have a narrower definition of usefulness? Could you perhaps suggest some articles from the past year that in your mind represented useful legal scholarship?

This commentator assumes that usefulness is the equivalent of being accepted by the courts.  I quarrel with this view for many reasons:

1. An article can have an influence on cases, even if difficult to demonstrate.  Many courts don’t cite law review articles even when they rely on them.  Judges are notorious for not being particularly charitable with citations.  They often copy verbatim parts of briefs, for example.  If a law professor relies on a scholarly work even in a minor way, the professor will typically cite to the work.  Not so for courts.

2. Most articles will not change the law.  Changing the law is quite difficult, and if most law review articles changed the law, the law would be ridiculously more dynamic than it currently is.

3. No matter what discipline or area, most of the things produced are not going to be great.  Most inventions are flops.  Most books, songs, movies, TV shows, art works, architecture, or anything produced are quite forgettable and will likely be forgotten.  Great lasting works only come around infrequently, no matter what the field.

4. Most people are forgettable too.  In the law, most practitioners and judges have been forgotten.  Only a few great ones are remembered.  Of the judges who are most well-known, it is interesting that many were more theoretical in nature and had a major impact in changing the law — typically in ways law professors might change the law.  Think of Benjamin Cardozo, who wrote many articles and books and who radically changed the law.  Think of Felix Frankfurter, a former law professor.  Think of Louis Brandeis.  Think of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  These were jurists who were thinkers.  They were readers.  They were literary.  They were writers of scholarship too.  Maybe the forgettable practitioners and judges are the ones who ignore legal scholarship.

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