When a Robot Kills, Is It Murder or Product Liability?

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 26, 2016

I am a law professor who writes about robotics. I’m also a big Paolo Bacigalupi fan, particularly his breakout novel The Windup Girl involving an artificial girl. So for me, “Mika Model” was not entirely new territory. For all my familiarity with its themes, however, Bacigalupi’s story revealed an important connection in robotics law that had never before occurred to me.

“Mika Model” feels plausible. The robotics is very advanced; engineers can tell you how difficult building a real Mika Model would be. Mika has leapt across the Uncanny Valley, lacking even the puppetlike movements of Bacigalupi’s earlier character Emiko. She would kill a Turing test.

But the trends that underpin the Mika Model are well underway. Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro painstakingly imitates the human form. Research in human-computer interaction suggests social robots are capable even today of playing on our emotions and instincts. And interconnected robots already share knowledge with the cloud.

The model of law is also familiar. Mika Model is manufactured and leased by a company called Executive Pleasures under a complex terms of service agreement. But Mika appears to have a mind of “her” own. So Bacigalupi’s protagonist, Detective Rivera, finds himself asking a canonical question in robot law: When a robot kills, is it murder or product liability?

A criminal analysis would ask whether a robot could form the requisite mens rea, i.e., intend the killing. Mika suggests we are all just soft machines; robots and people start with innate protocols and supplement with experience. She also claims to experience pain and other emotions. But is this commonality enough to support intent? And exactly what forms or theories of punishment apply?

The product liability question is also complex. Perhaps this particular Mika Model is defective, in which case strict liability is appropriate. Or perhaps the victim misused the product by torturing it. And how could the company foresee that a Mika Model would act in this way? There have been deaths, but they have always been linked to user “stamina issues.” Maybe Executive Pleasures avoids liability this time—but loses if it ever happens again.

Read the full piece at Slate