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Robot Law

Those of us with children know that among the first lessons we teach them is don't talk to strangers and don't make long distance calls without permission. It was bad enough insuring that your kids didn't run up your bills while you slept; now you have to worry about your computer doing it to you too. Enter the strange new world of "bots," as in "robots."

In the world of bots, your computer can buy and sell stock for you and even communicate, negotiate, transact and learn from other computers. It can buy supplies for your business and maybe enter into unfavorable deals for you. All this while you led your simple human life.

Computer artificial intelligence, which includes bots and related types of programs called "crawlers" and "agents," can give your computer a mind of its own. While artificial intelligence can make your computer that much more incredible, it also raises some thorny legal issues.

Some Vocabulary

Let's start with some vocabulary. A "bot" is a program that can automatically respond to information requests made over the Internet. It derives from the word "robot." For many of us, the word conjures up images like "Danger, danger, Will Robinson." Of course, let's not forget "Data" for the Trekkers out there. For the more literary, there's also Isaac Asimov's "Robot Series," which makes for some spectacular science fiction reading.

A "crawler" is a related type of program that's designed to seek out pages on the Web. Internet search engines like "Alta Vista" use crawlers. These programs seek out new life and new civilizations. They boldly go where no man has gone before!

Okay, that's not quite true, but they do gather information about websites. They systematically follow links from one page to the next, on a continuous basis, revisiting websites periodically for updates.

If you think that you live a life without bots, think again. If you've ever set your e-mail program to automatically reply with a message like, "Your business is important to me, but I'm on vacation. So leave me alone," you're not only a master of mixed messages, but you're also using a "bot."

Now, let's say you want to use a more complex bot that can shop for you. For example, if your business regularly buys 10,000 widgets a day, it might be advantageous to price widgets from all 100 potential suppliers each day. In human terms, that would be a massive and boring job. For a bot on the Web, it could be easy to visit every widget supplier website every day to buy from the company with the lowest price that day.

It's starts getting legally interesting when your bot encounters "Terms and Conditions of Sale" or a license agreement that requires assent before the sale. What if you end up with bad widgets and your bot "agreed" to an "as is," no warranty deal? Is that the deal because your mindless program agreed to it?

Today, the answer is still murky. As is so often the case, new laws are developing well after new technologies. Right now, this is just the type of issue with which the law is struggling.

Having said all that, you should assume that if you use a bot to transact business, you will have to live with the consequences of its actions; whether they're good or bad.

This all ties together with the rapidly developing idea of an "agent." That's a program that you custom tailor to your interests and needs. Then, you send it out to wander the Internet, where it goes from computer to computer, looking for whatever it is that you asked it to find. For example, you could use a stock-trading agent to buy and sell stocks in a preprogrammed way.

The term "bot" is a generic term, but we also have specific types of bots. For example, a "chatterbot" is used for chatting on the Web.

A "searchbot" is a general agent used for searching.

A "spiderbot" is like a "crawler." It reaches out like a spider, going from site to site, searching for new Web content. Search engines use spiderbots.

"Newsbots" look for news of interest to you.

"Knowbots" aren't your know it all in-laws, but rather the term is short for knowledgebots. They seek out specific knowledge.

Finally, we have "shoppingbots" which help you find good deals online. (I restrained myself on "shoppingbots." I like to think that I'm above sexist jokes about wives.)

The Future

One interesting futuristic idea is an automotive agent. It would keep track of your car's maintenance needs, select a mechanic and then schedule an appointment for service. That's more than your computer can do for you today, but still mundane. The good part will be when it drives the car to and from the mechanic for you while taking into account your schedule and calendar.

Futuristic bots will address and handle three important issues for perspective buyers. First, your bot will decide which specific product you should buy. In a sense, it will product broker for you.

Next, it will determine who offers the best-price-to-value mix for that particular product. Here, it's brokering between perspective merchants.

Finally, your bot will decide how to get the best deal and then close it for you. So, it's decided what to buy, from whom to buy it and now it's even negotiating the deal for you. Of course, the programming hides the human element in that it took a human skilled in what the bot is doing to give it instructions and strategic direction.

Still, the future will bring agents that proactively negotiate in accordance with the generally outlined instructions provided by you or a programmer. You'll need to tell it things like your desired specifications and desired price, highest and lowest allowable bid, and delivery date. You would select a strategy of anxious, cool-headed or frugal, which the agents would follow.

A bot-filled world creates a whole new legal landscape that will need legislation and good contracting between people to minimize nasty business disputes. Questions abound like under what conditions are you bound by the trading decisions of your stock trading agent? What if it malfunctioned? How, and from whom, can you recover when your agent makes faulty decisions that cause you to lose money?

Legislation being proposed, including the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, provides that a contract may be formed by the interaction of agents, whether with other agents or with humans.

Under a draft of what was then called Article 2B of the Uniform Commercial Code, the operations of an electronic agent bind the party that uses the agent as long as the agent functions within the scope of its intended purpose. However, the law also looks at the facts and circumstances of each case to determine if the operations of the agent indicate assent. It takes into account traditional doctrines of unconscionability, mistake, fraud, and factors like whether the agent acted outside the scope of its programming specifications.

The best advice I can give you if you choose to delve into this bot world is monitor your bots carefully and make sure that you and your technology lawyer fully understand the legal landscape before you take the leap. It can be a dangerous world out there Will Robinson.

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