Virtual Crime e-Pays.. NOT

Asimove’s LOR

During the halcyon days of technological innocence, Isaac Asimov wrote “I, Robot” – a collection of 9 short stories set in a world in which humans and robots co-exist. This co-existance was predicated on three rules that Asimov invented and named ‘The Laws of Robotics’ (LOR), The LOR laid down essential principles governing the relationships between robots and humans:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

According to the Isaac Asimov website, he came up with the LOR to do away, once and for all, with technophobic authors who created malevolent monsters whose only reason for existence was the destruction of poor, innocent, good hearted humanhs. Asimov – and others – felt that this one-dimentional view of the relationship betwen humans and their technocreations limits writers, who were able and wiling to explore richer views of machines – and the humans who designed them. In hundreds – even thousand – of Science Fiction books, before and after Asimov, grapple continuouesely with stories in which humans are pitted against human-created, often human-like, technology.

Si-Fi goes ‘wood

Great literary narratives make for attractive screenplays. Over the years, literary worls on the great human vs. technology comnflict have made it to big-time movies, Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” became Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 movie Total Recall was inspired by another Philip K. Dick story called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale“, Steven Spielberg’s “Artificial Intelligence: AI” (based on “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” – a short story by another genius of the genre, Brian Aldiss), and deals with a the touching story of a human-like child robot who falls in love with his adopting mom.

I, Robot” was also made into a movie in which, Hollywood imperative nullified the three laws of robotics – in the movie, robots set out to harm humans. The mama of all sci-fi movies, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic2001: A Space Odyssey“, is based on a script Kubrick wrote with another legend, Arthur C. Clarke. “2001: A Space Odyssey” introduced to the world the parenial rabid robot – a soft spoken socipathic machine named Hal who figures that life could be much better without the presence of pesky humans. Generlaly speaking, Hollywood grappeled over the years with humans/robots relatioships, often opting for the sheer power – consider Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, 1987,  the now iconic 1984 James Cameron movie, The Terminator,  and the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003).

In the 40 years since Hal’s mutiny and the 25 odd years since The Terminator, the world has chanhed in ways that would have made Isaac Asimov, who died in 1992, cackle with glee (after all, he said “I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.”) The most pertinant aspect of our early-21st century digital world is what appears to be the blurring of boundaries between real and virtual. It appears that the philosphical and ethical viewpoints entrenched in Asimov’s LOR are toally superfluous today. Sometime ago, I ToingToinged the story of the first human – a teenager – ever to be charged with cyber crime for removing virtual furniture from an online hotel inside a virtual world called Habbo. The main argument in the trial was: can one be accused of theft when stealing virtual (as opposed to real) items?

Real punishment for Virtual crimes

Recenlty, a court in Leeuwarden, Holland, ruled that stealing virtual items is, indeed, theft. It then sent two teenagers to lenghty terms of community service. The youngersters’ lawyers argued that the items stolen (an amulet and a mask stolen from another player in a virtual game called Runescape, do not exist and, therefore, cannot be deemed stolen. The court disagreed and argued that people get charged with theft when stealing electricity, for example. becuase of the tengible value it has for the victim. The same – they said – applies to virtual items stolen by the accused.

These are ealy days (and early crimes, too!) Imagine litigation involving future virtual crimes: can a virtual character (also known as an avatar) be charged with crime – for example, robbery, rape or murder – committed against another avatar? How about criminal avatars created by other avatars? Can a human be held responsible by action on which he had no direct control?

Is jurisdiction a problem?

Finally. there is the question of jurisdiction – the right of the court to sit over s cpecific case. According to BNET Business Dictionary, “Domicilium Citandi Et Executandi” is “the address where a summons or other official notice should be served if necessary, which must be supplied by somebody applying for credit or entering into a contract” – imagine a situation in which the accused (on behalf of the avatar, who comitted a crime) argues that the avatar has the right to be tried in his virtual world – where he/it legally resides and lives. How long is it before courts will not be able to reject such a request outright in ridicule?

As the boundaried bwtween real and virtual disappear, “Virtual actuality” will set in, ushering a period where avatars have a life of their own, complete with rules, laws, concepts, values, needs, aspirations and wants. Laws will have to be premugated and acted on in order to govern living entities (real and imaginary) and guarantee their safety.

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