Massachusetts May Make It Illegal to Give Your Robot a Gun

It's still legal in Detroit

It seems like only yesterday that I was criticizing the Massachusetts legislature for trying to force people to register their machetes, but it turns out that was 17 years ago. See Massachusetts State Legislature: Hard at Work” (Mar. 10, 2006). That did involve a weapon, though, so it’s still kind of relevant. Machete-control bills seem to have failed repeatedly in the Bay State, in fact, but now the legislature is turning to a more modern threat: robots with guns.

Two bills now pending in Massachusetts—both hilariously entitled “An Act to ensure the responsible use of advanced robotic technologies”—would make it a crime for Commonwealth citizens to make or operate any “robotic device” or “uncrewed aircraft” that is equipped with any weapon. Any weapon? Pretty much: “weapon” means “any device designed to threaten or cause death, incapacitation, or physical injury,” including but not limited to “stun guns, firearms, machine guns, chemical agents or irritants, kinetic impact projectiles, weaponized lasers, and explosive devices.” So basically, if it’s designed to be scary, a robot can’t have it.

Later on, the bills also refer to something called “disruptor technology,” a term not defined by the bills or by any existing Massachusetts law. My research shows that disruptor technology is used mainly by Romulans and Klingons (attention, nerds: I said “mainly”), and if that’s what the legislature is worried about, it would definitely be covered. Under state law, disruptors might not qualify as “firearms” because they don’t shoot bullets, but they would definitely be “stun guns” (“a portable device or weapon … from which an electrical current, impulse, wave or beam that is designed to incapacitate temporarily, injure, or kill may be directed”).

“Disruptor technology” might be Earth police jargon for Earth stun guns like Tasers, but if that’s what the bills’ sponsors meant they’d presumably just have used “stun gun.” Another possible explanation is something called a “projected water disruptor,” which bomb-disposal teams apparently use to destroy bombs faster than they can explode. So maybe the sponsors were thinking about one of those, but frankly the Klingon explanation seems just as likely to me.

Whatever it means, you won’t be able to put it on a robot if these bills become law.

Doing that would violate subsection (b), which would make it illegal in Massachusetts to “manufacture, modify, sell, transfer, or operate a robotic device or an uncrewed aircraft equipped or mounted with a weapon.” Under subsection (c), it would also be illegal to use a robot or drone to threaten, criminally harass, physically restrain, or attempt to physically restrain a human being, whether or not a weapon is involved, but giving them a weapon would be itself be illegal.

The penalty for violating these laws would be a fine ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Frankly, that seems like a small price to pay for using a robot to hassle certain people, but the bills point out that this would be in addition to the penalties for violating any other law. That is, for whatever reason, the sponsors seem to believe that someone who is determined to commit a crime and can afford their own robot to do it with is going to be deterred by the prospect of having to pay an extra $25k. That seems extremely doubtful to me.

There are, of course, exceptions that would allow government officials or “defense industrial companies” working with them to use armed robots or drones under certain circumstances, exceptions I have no doubt will never be abused. Subsection (i) is apparently meant to clarify that “used a robot” isn’t an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, and it seems ridiculous that we would need to clarify that but I suppose we probably do.