Defining a “bot” is hard

A new paper by Mark Lemley and Bryan Casey discusses the difficulties of formulating legal definitions of robots:

California enacted a statute making it illegal for an online “bot” to interact with consumers without first disclosing its non-human status. The law’s definition of “bot,” however, leaves much to be desired. Among other ambiguities, it bases its definition on the extent to which “the actions or posts of [an automated]” account are not the result of a person,” with “person” defined to include corporations as well as “natural” people. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine any online activity—no matter how automated—that is “not the result of a (real or corporate) person” at the end of the day.

You Might Be a Robot at 3.

Like obscenity, there do not appear to be any good definitions of “robot.” The paper instead suggests that regulators focus on behavior, not definitions:

A good example of this approach is the Better Online Ticket Sales Act of 2016 (aka “BOTS Act”). The Act makes no attempt to define bot. Instead, it simply prohibits efforts to get around security protocols like CAPTCHA. We don’t actually need to decide whether you are a bot. As the BOTS Act demonstrates, we can achieve our goals by deciding whether someone (or something) is circumventing the protocol.

Id. at 40.

One of the major problems is that so much unethical behavior is a combination of both human and automated activity. Meanwhile, human-in-the-loop processes are viewed as a solution to ethical AI problems. The idea that bots are ever truly autonomous is specious. We are the bots, and the bots are us.