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The Fourth Law of Robotics:

The robot's owner shall not weasel out of a binding contractual relationship. OK, wrong science fiction author, but that's what is held by Hanson v. America West Airlines (per illustrious UCLA Law grad Judge Andrew Guilford):

Plaintiff David Hanson ... has lost his head. More specifically, Plaintiff has lost an artistically and scientifically valuable robotic head modeled after famous science fiction author Philip K. Dick ("Head").... His stories have questioned whether robots can be human (see, e.g., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)), so it seems appropriate that Plaintiff reincarnated Dick as a robot which included the Head, valued at around $750,000.

Plaintiff lost his Head on one of Defendant's planes when flying from Texas to San Francisco with a connection in Las Vegas.... Plaintiff brought the Head onto the plane in a carry-on duffel bag and stored it in the overhead bin. Plaintiff fell asleep during the flight from Texas to Las Vegas, and woke up when the plane arrived in Las Vegas. On waking, Plaintiff immediately left the plane to catch his connecting flight to San Francisco. Perhaps because he had just woken up, Plaintiff lacked the total recall to remember to retrieve the Head from the overhead bin....

Federal common law allows a carrier to limit its liability for lost or damaged goods if the contract limiting liability offers the shipper (1) reasonable notice of the limited liability, and (2) a fair opportunity to buy higher liability. Defendant has satisfied the elements of an enforceable limited liability provision under federal common law....

Philip K. Dick and other science fiction luminaries have often explored whether robots might eventually evolve to exercise freedom of choice. See, e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey (a HAL 9000 exercises his freedom of choice to make some bad decisions). But there is no doubt that humans have the freedom of choice to bind themselves in mutually advantageous contractual relationships. When Plaintiff chose to enter the Contract of Carriage with Defendant he agreed, among other things, to limit Defendant's liability for lost baggage. Failing to show that he is entitled to relief from that agreement, Plaintiff is bound by the terms of that contract, which bars his state law claims.

Plus another cute line: "Defendant may have done everything as promised, only to fall victim to a head hunting thief or other skullduggery."

Bruce:
"Plaintiff lacked the total recall..."

I'm going to go read the decision to see if there are any other puns.
4.24.2008 12:39am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
brilliant
4.24.2008 1:06am
some dude:
The laws of Robotics are broken. Conflict is inherent because there are two separate protocols that have equal weight on the first law. Most all of the drama from Asimov's robot books spring from this. The Laws should read:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Or possibly:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot may not through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm as long as this will not conflict with the First or Second Law
4. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First, Second, or Third Law.
4.24.2008 1:30am
Freddy Hill:
The end is poetic:

The Court must GRANT Defendant's Motion. But it does so hoping that the android head
of Mr. Dick is someday found, perhaps in an Elysian field of Orange County, Dick's homeland, choosing to dream of electric sheep.

But this pun is a groaner:

While hearts may be left in San Francisco, heads apparently are left in Orange County, or are simply lost or stolen.
4.24.2008 1:39am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
@some dude - but 4 laws ruins the idea of the power of threes!
4.24.2008 2:22am
TruePath (mail) (www):
So I know you are a libertarian but are you really willing to take the stance that any condition the airline carriers demand you agree to before they give you passage counts (if you accept) as a freely entered contract and should be enforced?

In an industry with a very small number of companies a common prejudice or desire shared by the executives at these companies could require some small minority of passangers to agree to truly odious terms in order to fly. For instance suppose the CEOs at all major US airlines happen to find former child star X the hottest woman ever so they place a clause in their contracts saying that if the passanger is X they agree to have sex with the CEO (or model naked/perform in a porn film to avoid prostitution laws). Since it only affects X it won't be that big a concern for the vast majority of passangers but you end up with a situation where X, who now has a career requiring her to travel via plane, either must sleep with one of these CEOs or lose her job. Intuitively this sort of contract doesn't seem to be what we normally have in mind when we talk about mutually beneficial (she wants her job more than she minds the sex) freely entered contracts.

Sure this hypothetical isn't that plausible but once you grant the principle it's hard to see what's so different about a clause in every airline ticket requiring you forgo publishing a negative review of your experience on the airline if you are a professional writer for any publication with a circulation over a million. Once again the vast vast majority of flyers aren't affected in the slightest but if every airline adopts the policy now journalists, who must fly for their job, really have no choice about accepting the contract.

If you think that the contracts in these hypotheticals somehow don't really count (even if no specific law barred them at the time) what is the difference between these contracts and limitation of liability clauses you must accept to fly on any airline? What feature of these agreements makes them a 'real' contract that ought to be enforced?

------

Don't get me wrong I agree that this guy should have lost his case. However, the mere fact that he clicked a button/recieved a ticked with small print on it isn't the reason he should have lost. The reason he should have lost is that *passangers accept responsibility for any items lost on airlines (even by baggage handlers) is a reasonabe policy*. There is no shortage of alternative options (insurance, shipping companies, etc..) with reasonabe costs that would allow this guy to travel with his head with protection against it's loss. In other words the real action isn't in whether the contract was freely entered into or whether it is mutually beneficial (compared to no services being exchanged) but whether recognizing this kind of contract leads to greater social utility.

Of course this has nothing to do with the legal situation. But there was an implication in the quote that in the abscence of extreme extenuating circumstances the factors one must examine are whether the contract was mutually beneficial and freely entered into while it seems there are many examples that strongly suggest things are much more complicated.

---

Not to mention the confusing question of whether we can really count people buying airline tickets to be entering into contracts. While this may be well settled as a practical legal question as a philosophical/moral question it seems deeply unclear. Given the lack of any negotiation or ability to counteroffer and the fact the airline companies clearly don't even expect you to read the terms it's far from clear whether this is really an agreement of any kind.

---

Ultimately I guess I'm wondering what EV or some of the other intelligent libertarians around here think of these sorts of issues. Do you agree that what should count as a contract depends on it's effect on social welfare? If not do you reject social welfare from consideration entirely or just have the empirical belief that these rarely conflict. Also since libertarianism often likes to adopt the pretense that contracts are binary things, either entered or not I'm equally curious to hear what you think of grey area situations like non-negotiable terms printed on airline tickets.
4.24.2008 4:57am
Richard Nieporent (mail):
As my mother constantly told me when as a child I would lose something, if your head weren't attached to your body you would lose that too. I guess at least with respect to David Hanson, mother was right.
4.24.2008 9:08am
mls (www):
Presumably the court was able to restrain itself from using the term "Dick Head"?
4.24.2008 10:02am
cjwynes (mail):
There actually was a 4th law of robotics in Asimov's later years, but it was placed ahead of the first three, and it was an awful and hideous load of socialist nonsense that is best forgotten. Why do so many aging atheists wind up falling into terrible new age mumbo jumbo?

If they ever catch the guy who stole the head, I think he's got to go with an irresistable impulse defense. I mean, if you see the robotic head of Phillip K. Dick sitting there unguarded, it would be a crime NOT to steal it, really. Throw that on your mantle, that's a nerd conversation starter for decades.
4.24.2008 10:44am
Weary of this:
I am sure litigants love it when judges decide to use their case to indicate how clever or witty they are. Such flippant writing is of no use to either the Plaintiff or Defendant, both of whom may wonder how seriously the merits of this case were considered in light of the judge's decision to use the case as a platform for humor. (Of course, the prevailing party will care little, but the losing party must wonder.). These types of opinions, or those in which the judge is compelled to write in verse or with many a reference to David Byrne, have no meaningful place in jurisprudence other than to amuse the bench and bar.
4.24.2008 12:15pm
Gary McGath (www):
"While hearts may be left in San Francisco, heads apparently are left in Orange County, or are simply lost or stolen."

The judge must never have seen the Star Trek episode in which the android Data indeed left his head in San Francisco.
4.24.2008 2:00pm
Dave N (mail):
These types of opinions, or those in which the judge is compelled to write in verse or with many a reference to David Byrne, have no meaningful place in jurisprudence other than to amuse the bench and bar.
Oh, lighten up!

Actually, I enjoy a well-written opinion (whether or not it includes bad puns) because it is often more educational than an opinion written in passive voice with a string cite from hell that meticulously catalogues all 47 previous cases that made the exact same legal point.
4.24.2008 2:11pm
Ventrue Capital (mail) (www):
Infinite Injury's well-intentioned questions are a perfect opportunity to do "Libertarianism 101"

In an industry with a very small number of companies a common prejudice or desire shared by the executives at these companies could require some small minority of passangers to agree to truly odious terms in order to fly.


I agree that having "a very small number of companies" in an industry is bad, and having a monopoly (like a single government agency) is even worse! That's one reason I'm against laws and regulations which restrict competition, e.g. by not allowing people to start new airlines at all (as opposed to regulations which set standards for safety, etc). We used to have those bad regulations back in the 1970's, btw.

As for what would happen if they imposed odious conditions, let's start with a very simple case. I believe -- and I assume you agree -- that the executives of every airline company share a common desire for more, more, and more profits. The sky's the limit (pun intended)! Why don't they simply double all their ticket prices, or multiply them by ten?

What do you think would happen if they did this?

If you think the answer is "Airline customers would just have to put up with it," then why do you think they haven't done this already? [Hint: What would happen if all the airlines multiplied their prices by ten, except for one airline which only multiplied its prices by five?]

Now apply the same reasoning to any other odious condition you can think of.


Do you agree that what should count as a contract depends on it's effect on social welfare? If not do you reject social welfare from consideration entirely or just have the empirical belief that these rarely conflict. Also since libertarianism often likes to adopt the pretense that contracts are binary things, either entered or not I'm equally curious to hear what you think of grey area situations like non-negotiable terms printed on airline tickets.


The best introductory discussion of this is Richard Epstein's book _Simple Rules for a Complex World_. [I tried to post a link to Amazon here, but your website didn't allow that. Stupid website, it banned me once before!]

Here's my take on it: First, any transaction that is voluntary (meaning either party could choose not to have it) must mean that both parties are better off than they would be without it (since otherwise they could choose not to have it). Therefore, it improves social welfare.

(The rare exceptions would be cases where one party is so stupid or ignorant that they agree to something against their own interests. For example, if they are drunk, or mentally incompetent, e.g. retarded. Obviously people like that shouldn't be allowed to make contracts; don't worry, I'll make the contracts for them.)

Second, I'm not sure why you call it a "pretense" that contracts are binary. I assume you mean to say that some contracts (like airline tickets) are "take it or leave it, we're not going to bother to negotiate because we physically don't have enough time to negotiate the terms of an airline ticket separately with every single person who buys a ticket; and besides, 99.99% of the people who read the fine print have never had any problems with it." The law calls that a "contract of adhesion" but it's still voluntary and binary, because you don't have to say yes. You can fly on another airline, or take your car or a bus, or simply stay home.

I hate airline conditions so much that I refuse to fly, but I don't want to force my personal opinions and tastes on everyone else...
4.24.2008 2:44pm
Ventrue Capital (mail) (www):
What I want to know is, is this particular judge almost as witty as Alex Kozinski, or is it his clerk?
4.24.2008 2:47pm
Jiminy (mail):
For any of you Horselover Fat fans out there, this head was pretty amazing - it was part of an android of Dick that was programmed to recognize people that the author actually knew in life, and when the robot saw them, would relate a few words to that person, identifying them and asking about other mutual relations!

Very cool thing and I'm sure that the author would have approved.

I'm really glad that his family is very generous and helpful with the fans looking to develop his work into movies or other media. The trilogy he wrote about God and relgion - Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer - is worth a good page turn.
4.24.2008 3:20pm
Dick King:
TruePath, the law cited by the court required the airline to have offered the passengers "(2) a fair opportunity to buy higher liability". By finding for the defendant they ruled that they had met that condition.

So the passenger did have a chance to choose higher liability limits by paying more.

-dk
4.24.2008 3:47pm
Anoymous:
Is it the judge? The clerk? Or the clerk's witty boyfriend?
4.24.2008 4:56pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
In other news, airlines will now post a "Have you collected everything form the overhead bin" warning labels on seat backs.
4.24.2008 6:31pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
Ventrue Capital:

Whether or not airline passangers would just have to put up with it is actually a somewhat complex question. For convience let's imagine there is currently just one airline and that airline chooses to quintuple prices (let's assume this is still less than the cost of doing it via a learjet). Do the customers just have to eat it?

Well certainly if there are other goods that will substitute for airline travel then no. People might start taking amtrak etc... though it's not a perfectly substitutable good. However, society would adjust to the higher price and people wouldn't get fired because they couldn't be out in LA tomorrow since many people would be taking the train.

What about the entry of other competitors into the market. Well in the abscence of government regulation this won't necessarily happen. The current monopoly simply signals their willingness to cut fares way down if any competitor enters the market thus making it a poor investment for any competitor to enter the market. This is more or less the way Rockefeller did it. However, I agree in the presence of last regulating this sort of behavior the market will protect consumers at large.

This was the reason I was very careful to use examples where only a very small number of customers are impacted by the odious terms. I mean suppose the NYT becomes known as a rabid critic of the airline industry so all the airlines happen to add the clause to their contract that i return for passage any journalist employed by the NYT sometime in this calendar year must agree not to publish any articles critical of the airline industry. Since the number of people who are impacted negatively is minuscule compared to the size of the flying public there will be no effective market force to fix the situation.

I agree the market protects against poor treatment of consumers at large the question is whether it protects against extremely odious conditions inflicted on a minuscule proportion of the population. Of course in the cases I gave above the public might be outraged and step in to address the problem (provide a private plane) but in reality this is likely to happen to politically unpopular groups.
4.25.2008 3:04am