University of Chicago Law Review

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Remedies for Robots

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What happens when artificially intelligent robots misbehave? The question is not just hypothetical. As robotics and artificial intelligence systems increasingly integrate into our society, they will do bad things. We seek to explore what remedies the law can and should provide once a robot has caused harm.

Remedies are sometimes designed to make plaintiffs whole by restoring them to the condition they would have been in “but for” the wrong. But they can also contain elements of moral judgment, punishment, and deterrence. In other instances, the law may order defendants to do (or stop doing) something unlawful or harmful.

Each of these goals of remedies law, however, runs into difficulties when the bad actor in question is neither a person nor a corporation but a robot. We might order a robot—or, more realistically, the designer or owner of the robot—to pay for the damages it causes. But it turns out to be much harder for a judge to “order” a robot, rather than a human, to engage in or refrain from certain conduct. Robots can’t directly obey court orders not written in computer code. And bridging the translation gap between natural language and code is often harder than we might expect. This is particularly true of modern artificial intelligence techniques that empower machines to learn and modify their decision-making over time. If we don’t know how the robot “thinks,” we won’t know how to tell it to behave in a way likely to cause it to do what we actually want it to do.

Moreover, if the ultimate goal of a legal remedy is to encourage good behavior or discourage bad behavior, punishing owners or designers for the behavior of their robots may not always make sense—if only for the simple reason that their owners didn’t act wrongfully in any meaningful way. The same problem affects injunctive relief. Courts are used to ordering people and companies to do (or stop doing) certain things, with a penalty of contempt of court for noncompliance. But ordering a robot to abstain from certain behavior won’t be trivial in many cases. And ordering it to take affirmative acts may prove even more problematic.

In this Article, we begin to think about how we might design a system of remedies for robots. Robots will require us to rethink many of our current doctrines. They also offer important insights into the law of remedies we already apply to people and corporations.

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