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Computers could own property, Supreme Court judge says

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Welcome to the machine

A judge of the UK’s top court says that computers could in future own property in the same way as individuals and companies do today.

Lord Hodge said that there is “no reason in principle” why UK law couldn’t be changed to give machines legal personality. Computers with artificial intelligence (AI) would then be able to own intellectual property and could be required to carry insurance in case they get sued.

Hodge said: “One option for addressing the various questions arising out of the use of AI in Fintech [financial technology] is to explore whether to give a computer separate legal personality. While at first blush, that may sound far-fetched, there is no reason in principle why the law cannot create such personality.”

There are precedents for such whacky ideas, the judge pointed out: after all, companies are not human but are deemed to have legal “personality”. And in the 1991 case of Bumper Development Corporation, English law “recognised the separate legal personality in Indian law of a ruined temple which was little more than a pile of stones”.

The Scottish judge was speaking at the Edinburgh Centre for Commercial Law on “the potentials and perils of financial technology”. The speech canvassed different legal reforms that might be needed to cope with fintech such as artificial intelligence, which he defined as “computer systems able to perform tasks which traditionally have required human intelligence or tasks whose completion is beyond human intelligence”.

The pace of fintech change requires innovative legal solutions, Hodge argued, pointing to the possibility of robot traders which could “devise and enter into contracts with each other”.

Hodge’s wide-ranging address took in crypto-currencies, smart contracts and even the US Mueller investigation.

The tech-focused justice defended his record on predicting the price of Bitcoin after Legal Cheek pointed out that his last speech on the subject had warned of a bubble long after the bubble had burst. Hodge pointed out that at the time “the price of a Bitcoin was about $6,400”. It has since fallen further still, to $3,800.

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