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How can you hold machines accountable for their actions? If you’re being unwillingly watched by a camera, if you can’t access your money because a bank machine blocks your card, who is responsible? A New York conference on technology says that objects – not just people – are responsible.

The age-old question of who is responsible for an action, the gun or the hand that holds it, is a more relevant question than ever in this age of increased technological autonomy, and objects acting independent of the entire will of a human. Kate Crawford, of Microsoft Research, has argued that technology companies disassociate themselves from the actions of their machines because objects are viewed as being liable to fault independent of owner responsibility. She argues that this shouldn’t be the case – and that Medieval Law shows us the way forward to hold people and objects accountable.

In Medieval England, a deodand was the name for a transition of property to person. If an object killed someone, for example, it would become a deodand and would be forfeit to the monarchy. The owner of the object was therefore responsible for paying a fine equal to the value of the object to the court – in recompense for the crime the object was seen to have committed. Crawford argues that a similar system would ensure technology companies and all corporations would be accountable for their actions.

History students should investigate the deodand in Medieval England, and particularly the deodand’s revival in the 1830s where railway companies were briefly charged with fines equal to the cost of the train for passenger deaths. Computer Science applicants should consider how much responsibility humans should take in the deployment of algorithms and technology that have consequences for human freedom.


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