Before you put it to work for you, don’t forget to incorporate your robot!

The upside and downside of incorporating robots.

You don’t want to be sued for what your robot did. (Photo: Frankieleon / Flickr Commons)

You don’t want to be sued for what your robot did. (Photo: Frankieleon / Flickr Commons)

You’ve heard about e-trading, or high-frequency trading — the use of algorithms to react instantly and reflexively to the market. And you may have heard about robo-advisors, in which software manages your portfolio. Also, as Jerry Kaplan writes in his new book, Humans Need Not Apply (Yale University Press, 2015), of Amazon, etc.:

Super-human omniscient systems observe our individual and group behavior, then guide us to what we purchase, listen to, watch, and read— while the profits quietly pile up elsewhere.

In fact, the day may come when robots will own assets.  

The functional parallels between corporations and synthetic intellects are so strong that courts will likely establish the principle that synthetic intellects can be artificial persons.

… The most important of these are the rights to enter contracts and own assets. Arguably, we already permit computer-based systems to enter into contracts when they trade stocks, or when you make an online purchase.

Though, careful. In an interview with Steven Levy at Medium’s Backchannel, Kaplan says:

A robot can do things with those assets that we may not be happy with. … a robot can get loose and disconnected from its economic owners, and run roughshod.

Returning to Humans Need Not Apply:

There will also be strong pressure to permit artificial persons to own assets because such assets can be subject to seizure or fines independent of the artificial person’s owners. In the robotic assault example [earlier in the book], the judge effectively condemned the robot to a year of servitude because its own labor was the only asset it had. There was no way to order the robot to pay a fine, and presumably the judge thought this sentence better than asking the owner to pay. But if the robot had its own burgeoning bank account, it would be a very tempting target.


Owners of synthetic intellects will also favor granting contractual and property rights to artificial persons because this will have the side effect of insulating their own assets from liability — the most common motivation for forming a corporation today.

Kaplan feels that development isn’t “one possible future among many,” but inevitable, just as today

… your lawyer or doctor might be a “professional corporation” or LLC. If I were the owner or operator of a fleet of autonomous taxis, I would seriously consider incorporating each vehicle as an asset of its own legal entity for precisely this reason; I wouldn’t want a single catastrophic mistake to bankrupt my entire enterprise.

Otherwise, robots, or synthetic intelligences, as Kaplan calls them:

… will ruthlessly pursue the goals we assign them, outcompeting humans, and may be under our control only nominally. … running around as independent agents, performing work and making money on behalf of their owners, without regards to the consequences to others or to society in general.

If, thanks (or no thanks) to corporations can be treated as people, why not robots? The Supreme Court failed to take that into consideration when it decided in favor of Citizens United.

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