A.I. May Have Met Its Ethical Match in California Senate Bill 1001

A new California law, Senate Bill 1001, aims to prevent chatbots from pretending as though they’re human – but may have given us an additional gift when it comes to artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Here’s the text from the bill:

This bill would, with certain exceptions, make it unlawful for any person to use a bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online with the intent to mislead the other person about its artificial identity for the purpose of knowingly deceiving the person about the content of the communication in order to incentivize a purchase or sale of goods or services in a commercial transaction or to influence a vote in an election. The bill would define various terms for these purposes. The bill would make these provisions operative on July 1, 2019.

It goes on to define what ‘bot’ and ‘online’ mean (such as: “‘Bot’ means an automated online account where all or substantially all of the actions or posts of that account are not the result of a person.”). The language seems specific to Twitter and Facebook accounts with regard to election hacking and altering public opinions.

Still, the policy makes no provisions for A.I. “doing business” without telling a human it’s a bot. The most glaring example here is the robocalling Google Duplex; though we’ve seen demonstrations of Duplex, none of them have the platform identifying itself as a bot to the human on the other end of the phone. More to the point, Duplex’s sales pitch is that it can call a restaurant or hair salon and make a reservation for you; it’s a bot pretending to be human for the purpose of incentivizing purchases.

(Senate Bill 1001 also peels the curtain back on the Turing Test. No matter how good a bot is at pretending to be human, this law mandates it must tell you its nature, which would make it fail the Test.)

The bill’s language is clearly positioned for online troll accounts, but makes no specific provision allowing A.I. to “Duplex” its way into our lives without a peep. However, it’s easily arguable that the language of what constitutes an “online platform” (“any public-facing Internet Web site, Web application, or digital application, including a social network or publication”) would relate specifically to A.I.

If there’s a failure in this bill, it’s that a ‘bot’ must have more than ten million unique monthly users in the United States for a majority of the months in a calendar year. The bill is also (naturally) limited to California, which means a ‘bot’ must have 10 million California residents using it every month for the majority of a calendar year before the provisions kick in.

The bill doesn’t go as far as we’d like, but it’s a step in the right direction. As ethics experts begin to frame how A.I. progresses, moves like Senate Bill 1001 are important milestones.