Punishing our machines

Humans punish inanimate objects. Today, it might be kicking a car in frustration, but once upon a time the punishment was formal and quite literal. And one of the most interesting examples is that of a bell in Mexico City’s Catedral Metropolitana. The Cathedral is known for its bells, and half a century ago, one of the bells killed a novice bell-ringer, who was struck by the huge spinning bell in the middle of performing an a vuelo. Originally named for a saint, the offending bell was renamed La Castigada (the punished one), its clapper was removed and the bell was tied down, sentenced to so remain for 50 years. Its sentence was commuted in the Papal Jubilee year of 2000, when the bell was sprinkled with holy water, prayed over and exorcised of its evil. The bell is now allowed to ring again, though its saint’s name was not restored and it thus remains La Castigada. Ringers approach it with respect!

Many other cultures mete out punishments on offending objects, and in medieval England an object or animal which caused a human’s death was subject to deodand, forefeiture to the King with the understanding that the object was to be put to pious uses. Deodand was not abolished in England until the mid-1800s, though as a practical matter, it was rarely invoked in the later years. Gone, but not entirely forgotten, as modern courts confiscate “instruments” of crimes such as drug-running boats, houses used for meth labs and cars used for criminal activities. Obviously this is done as a deterrent to others, but it figuratively is little different than deodand — the court is in essence assigning blame for the act to the artifact in order to justify detaining it.

This seems a historic curiosity, but meanwhile, our machines are gaining rudimentary intelligence. In a few decades, most of our new artifacts will be anything but inanimate, and many will exhibit rudimentary intelligencei. Punishing artifacts takes on a whole new meaning when the artifacts have sensory awareness. Will we punish robots? And will the punishment be rational, or mere atavism. We may be modern, but scratch the veneer, and we are as superstitious as our medieval ancestors, eager to find spurious causality and place blame even when such blame may be utterly nonsensical.