I would have thought this would've been asked already, but I searched this site and the Internet, and I couldn't find anything. Apologies if this is a duplicate.

As computers become increasingly autonomous, there have already been a handful of incidents where computers have done things that would be criminal for a person to do. For example, a self-driving car killed a pedestrian, and a Twitter bot made a death threat. Moreover, both of these computers were essentially operating under their own decision-making processes and were not directly controlled by any human.

Could it be possible for prosecutors to file criminal charges against a computer? Is there some standard of sentience that the computer would have to achieve in order to indict it? (United States)

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    You are talking about science fiction, not law. – George White Oct 20 '19 at 0:11
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    I think if someone makes a program that “might” break the law and the programmers are aware of this possibility, they as humans are 100% liable - to program, release or run it knowingly. – MicroMachine Oct 20 '19 at 3:43
  • This is no more science fiction than most of the law surrounding technology. What prevents a particular physical computer or identifiable abstract programme from being indicted, when physical rivers and abstract companies are granted personhood and can (to varying frequency) actually prosecuted per se? @GeorgeWhite – Nij Oct 20 '19 at 4:27
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    @GeorgeWhite a self-driving car killed a pedestrian. That is fact, not fiction, and surely the law has something to say about liability in connection with that death. Anon, I am unfamiliar with the death threat you speak of. Could you add some links to the question for the benefit of readers who might not be familiar with either of these incidents? – phoog Oct 20 '19 at 6:34
  • A computer driven car will not be going to jail any time soon no matter how many people it runs over. – George White Oct 20 '19 at 19:31

First, I will make a distinction of terminology.

A computer is hardware, like, in essence a calculator. Hardware doesn't make choices or decisions. Its response to. It's behavior to a given input is generally static or in set in a pre-specified pattern (e.g. press a button, show 1+the last number shown). However, it often responds to an input by giving inputs to a program, and then following its instructions (like a car, responding to a driver's input of pressing the accelerator peddle by speeding up).

A program is software. Software and its behavior can be edited, and can even alter its own behavior (see the topics of "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence", and note that in real life they are actually quite different from how they are commonly portrayed in fiction, much like law).

With regards to a computer, technically it could be targeted directly by legal action today under the rule "civil asset forfeiture". However, in general a computer is a merely a location where programs are stored and run, and so are unlikely to be indictable in the traditional sense, in the same way that one would usually not be able to indict a field or building.

Potentially, a program could be indicted, if a law was passed indicating that programs or classes of programs are legally considered persons. Note that either this only apply to programs that can pass some series of thresholds or would have massive additional effects because programs would then be full persons, under the law; so you wouldn't be able to buy, sell or license property (due to slavery laws), nor shut down computers (because doing so would "kill" the programs that are stored there (in the same way one can't burn down a building where people are living), nor alter programs without their consent (analogous to medical procedures).

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    If a computer was a "person" like a corporation was a person, it could be bought/sold and essentially killed. – George White Oct 20 '19 at 20:37

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