Truth and Writing

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway, addressing his fellow writers during the Spanish Civil War.* “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” This really suggests two problems, of course. First, the writer must “find what is true”; next, they must make the reader “experience” it. As academics (students and scholars) we sometimes confuse the two, mistaking the difficulty of the material we are studying for the difficulty of writing about it, but it is important to keep them separate. In fact, from day to day, in an academic setting, this idea of “finding what is true” is not as important as “writing truly” what we think. Let me try to say a few words about that.

Taking Hemingway at face value, and putting it in somewhat philosophical language, we can say that he proposed that the writer must, first, form a justified, true belief about something and, then, present it in writing in such a way that the reader, too, comes to believe it. For Hemingway, it is the truth that is to be “projected” in the writing. But what if we’re not as confident about war, love, or lion hunting as Hemingway appears to have been? What if we’re writing more to try out our ideas than to persuade our readers that we’re right?

I want to suggest that good academic writing less about making the reader experience your truth and more about getting the reader to to consider whether what you’re saying is true. When we’re reading a good novel (and, arguably, a good piece of journalism) we don’t want to be constantly asking ourselves whether what is happening in the story is true. We want the events — what Hemingway called “the sequence of motion and fact” — to present themselves to our imaginations almost as if they were actually happening. We want to know what happens next, not whether it happened at all. (The so-called “unreliable narrator” poses a problem for this simplified view, but not one that, given another post, I couldn’t deal with.) But in a piece of scholarship each fact is presented, paragraph for paragraph, in such a way that we can ask the two questions in Wayne Booth’s ideal Oxford tutorial: What is the author saying? How does the author know?

That is, instead of worrying about whether you are persuading your reader that what you’re saying is true, and, indeed, instead of worrying about whether it is actually true, in the moment of writing, just project what you think in such way that the reader can carefully consider whether or not it is true. Indeed, your writing should compel your reader, not to believe it, but to think about it. The truth of the claims you are making should seem important to you. The question of their truth should impress itself on the reader as a relevant one.

Not all writing is like this. Leaving aside novels, we often read stories without caring very much whether it’s true, or simply taking for granted that it is. When reading a popul0ar science book, for example, we don’t seriously consider the possibility that the writer may be wrong. We see our job as readers to be mainly one of understanding the material that we’re presented with. In the media in general, we read many of the stories mainly as an indication of what “agenda setters” want us to think about today. We don’t expect them to have particularly good reasons for for believing its true, but some strong incentives for suggesting the idea to us. Advertising is a good example of this sort of thing, too. Like propaganda, it’s a kind of rhetoric we know how to engage with, but our main concern is not whether or not it is “true”.

Academic writing is not so much the art of writing what is true as the art of presenting something in such a way that its truth may be discussed. Once the reader understands what you’re saying, they should wonder how you know its true. Reading on, they should of course be enlightened about exactly that.

*I originally said he was addressing journalists. But the remark was made in a speech at the American Writers’ Congress in June of 1937. Published under the title “Fascism Is a Lie” in Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, Matthew J. Bruccoli, ed. (University Press of Mississippi, 1986).

The Process and the Moment

“Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.” (Oscar Wilde)

“From the centre, the manager or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates. [Jeremy] Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a panopticon prison.” (Wikipedia)

Last year, near the end of the Art of Learning Series, I hit on a useful distinction that I want to begin with and build on this year. If I am right, I have discovered three useful triads around which to organise your experience of higher education. The series is pitched to students, but I think even seasoned academics can get something out of reflecting on their goals and, when they do so, to take their happiness seriously. And happiness is very much the theme of this post. Also, while the fall series is aimed broadly at the learning process, in this post I want to apply it specfically to writing. I think the point generalizes to reading and speaking, but it may be easier to understand if we focus on the business of putting words to paper. I want us to consider the difference between the writing moment and the writing process.

When Oscar Wilde said that “suffering is one very long moment” he was serving two year’s of hard labor in prison. Bentham’s utilitarian archictectures nowithstanding, it’s important to keep in mind that school is, not only not prison, it is the opposite of prison. “School” comes from the Greek word for “spare time, leisure, rest, ease; idleness.” Bentham’s intuitions may be vindicated a little, however, when we realise that it also involved “a holding back, a keeping clear,” and, indeed, that school sort of clears a space in our life for learning, provides, if you will, a “clearing” where learning can take place. A “here”. I want to stress that it is nothing like a prison, except that it walls us off, for a time, from the ordinary business of living. Wilde’s suffering was unbearable because his respite from this business was not chosen freely.

This is why I remind you not to resent the academic situation. Remember that you have chosen it and that it offers you, precisely, freedom to think and feel differently about life than you might otherwise be compelled to by your life circumstances. The trick is not so see your time at university as “one very long moment” but to “divide it by seasons”, by semesters, by weeks, and days and hours. Indeed, I recommend you divide it into half-hours for good measure. It is these little moments that you must learn to master and then organize into a kind of progress. If you do this right, you will find pleasure in the moment, satisfaction in the procees, and confidence in your progress. This fall, over a series of posts, tied to a series of talks, I hope to show you how.

Pleasure is of the moment, the present. When you are writing you must give yourself conditions that allow you to enjoy the activity. Don’t imagine your teachers (or, if you are a scholar, your reviewers) already looking over your shoulder ready to pounce. Don’t worry about life’s tribulations and responsibilities, to which you will return after the writing is done. “The human brain,” said Cyril Connolly, “once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow.” The same is true (if, quite literally, more prosaically) of the making of a paragraph. Give your brain a proper moment to function fully. Release yourself from time and space.

Of course, you can’t keep that up for long, as Wilde reminds us. Let every moment come to an end. Now look back at your process and find some satisfaction in the past, a series of deliberate moments that lie behind you. Remember what you accomplished there, not just how you suffered. If you have opened yourself to pleasure, you have, willy-nilly, opened yourself to pain, so don’t be surprised that not every moment was passed in pure bliss. You will have struggled and you will have learned. If you followed my rules, you will have a number of more or less coherent, indeed, increasingly coherent prose paragraphs to show for it. Look them over. Read them through, and out loud. Admire your handiwork. Take some satisfaction in it.

Pleasure in the present moment, satisfaction with the process that is past. What shall we say about the future? You want to face the future with confidence, and confidence somes from the progress you are making. Through a series of effective writing moments, organised into a reliable process, your prose is becoming stronger. Keep working from the centre of your strength, always seeking pleasure in the now and satisfaction in the then. This will give you confidence in what is to come. These three triads (moment/pleasure/present, process/satisfaction/past, progress/confidence/future) are what I want to explore this fall. You’re welcome to join me. Your comments along the way are more than welcome.

How to Write a Paper

First you must lay aside your sophomoric resentment of the task. I know you came by it honestly, no doubt as a sophomore, but your contempt for your reader will not make your paper easier to write. Writing a paper is a serious activity. It is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. A paper exposes your ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong; and, if that is what you are, you want to know. You respect your reader’s knowledge and intelligence because it is like your own. If you are an undergraduate, your reader is a serious student in your cohort; if you are a professor, your reader is a fellow scholar in your discipline. Whatever your station in life, when you are writing an academic paper, your reader is a peer.

A paper always presents the result of study. Sometimes the study is so well-defined that it deserves an article, sometimes it is merely the learning you did in the weeks or months before you wrote the paper. You may be reporting the results of years of fieldwork or weeks of classwork; the point is that the paper presents something you have learned deliberately. You may have formulated and answered an explicit research question, or you may merely have followed a reading list and attended classes. In any case, you set out to discover a set of truths and, after some definite effort, perhaps some actual suffering, you reached your goal, or at least got measurably closer to it. You are now in a position to tell the reader, not just what you think, but how you know. You can even tell the reader how well you know it, how certain you are. The paper is simply the most efficient possible way of doing this.

A paper is a series of paragraphs that each supports, elaborates, or defends one thing you know. Since a paragraph normally consists of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, there are about two of them to the page. Some of them will introduce the paper, some will establish a backgound, some will theorize your object, some will present your methods, some will offer an analysis, some will discuss your results, some will conclude the paper. A five-page paper will have nine to eleven paragraphs. A ten-page paper will have about twenty, a twenty-page paper, about forty. You have to know one thing well to write each paragraph. The sooner you decide what the ten, twenty, or forty things you will claim to know in this paper are, the happier you will be as a writer.

Each paragraph occupies roughly one minute of your reader’s attention. You are arranging a series of one-minute experiences in the mind of your reader. Tell them about the world your research bears upon. Tell them about the science you have brought to bear upon it. Tell them what your research shows. Tell them how their minds should change in the clear light of what you’ve found. In an important sense, a paper always seeks the artful dissappointment of the reader’s expecations of your object. You are showing them something new and this will have consequences for what they thought was true. Should they rethink their expectations, their theories? Or should they now make some practical intervention in the world we share? Spend a few minutes of your readers’ time working through these issues.

Your kindness to your reader is measurable in your discipline. How much time did you spend on each paragraph? Did you demand, say, 27 minutes of yourself before you asked your reader to give you one? Did you spend some of that time making sure that the key sentence presented a discrete difficulty for the reader to consider? Did you compose further sentences with the explicit aim of making the key sentence easier to believe, understand, or agree with? Did you devote some time to arranging the sentences in an order that yielded a maximum of clarity and a minimun of boredom? Did you take the time to read your own paragraph out loud to make sure it works as it should? Did you seek some feedback on it? Your prose should be like a window on your mind. You are writing down what you know so that your peers can engage you in conversation about what you think is true. That is the substance of the craft.

Robots, Rights, and Writers

for David and Josh

“…theoretical research in its academic form is the privileged place for these functions to be confused.” (Jacques Derrida)

I’ve learned a great deal this summer. I’m not sure I’ve resolved any of the core issues around artificial intelligence and academic writing, but I have reached a much better understanding, both of how these technologies work and of how our scholarly discourse approaches them. Intellectually, it has calmed my nerves a bit; I’m no longer too worried that robots will suddenly gain moral standing and legal rights in any revolutionary way. Professionally, however, I’m perhaps more worried than I once was; I have to admit that artificial intelligence is more advanced than I had thought, perhaps even than I had thought possible. I’m still confident that it will never be conscious (or even sentient), but it is increasingly able to seem so. In twenty years, I may very well be out of a job. Fortunately, I’ll also be retiring. I’m too old to learn to code!

Anyway, I wanted to make a few quick closing remarks before leaving this topic for a while and getting back to the ordinary business of writing academically. I hope you’ll grant, as I said at the start of the summer, that language models are nominally in my wheelhouse, but I understand if, as a regularly reader of this blog, you think I’ve been off on a bit of a tear. I promise that the next few months will be devoted to the art of learning, the craft of research, and the altogether human pleasures of writing. In any case, here are three quick paragaphs about robots and writing on the way out, each organized around a sometimes subtle distinction that I’ll no doubt be thinking about far into the future.

Robots/Machines. All robots are machines, and not all robots are humanoid. What is the important difference? I think it’s that a robot seems to “serve” us; it exists in what looks like servitude. It’s a machine that interacts with us on a scale that feels “social” and this naturally evokes our sympathy. A machine that does something for us, i.e., something that we would otherwise have to do ourselves, gives us a different feeling, when we watch it work, than one that we do something with, i.e., one that we use to accomplish some goal. We drive, we vaccuum. Once the car drives itself or the vaccuum moves by itself we begin to identify with its predicament. Part of this has to do with the fact that it is doing its work within the same physical constraints as we do ours and with roughly the same urgency. It’s got the room to clean; there’s a speed limit to observe. That seems to be how we distinguish “robots” from mere machines. They occupy space and time on a human scale.

Rights/Rules. The key here is a sense of freedom. Rights give us what Daniel Dennett called “elbow room”, a space in which free will can operate meaningfully. Rules can, of course, be broken, but that word itself suggests that you either follow them or you don’t work. (I’ve always liked the irony of “working to rule” as a form a labor unrest.) We can have rights and enjoy the freedoms that they suggest without ever invoking them. Thinking about the reaction of the state to people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, a dark thought once occurred to me: if you want your privacy you’ll have to keep it like a secret. Rights, like privacy, exist in so far as they are respected, while rules must be enforced, like a secret must be guarded. We could imagine rules that make us do only what we’d want to do anyway; but we’d rather simply have the right to do those things. It just feels right.

Writers/Authors. This one has perhaps been talked, if you’ll pardon a little joke, to death. What is an author? What is writing? What is the future of the book? These questions have been addressed from every angle by Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Inc. & Co. Etc. “An author performs a function,” said Barthes, making a useful distinction, “a writer, an activity.” For the author language is constitutive, for the writer, it merely supports a practice. For the author, language is an end in itself; for the writer, it is a means. I may not be getting that exactly right, but it’s this sort of distinction we’re talking about. For me, it’s all about authority. The author has rights, moral rights, not just legal ones. The writer gives us information but the author takes responsibility. While I’m loth to admit it, “writer” almost becomes a pejorative. Indeed, the more I think about it, this distinction is probably moot in regards to robot rights. Robots, I would say, can’t be authors; they can’t even write.

It has been suggested a number of times during these discussions on Twitter that I’m a poor scholar. I like to think I have cobbled together a workable philosophy over the past thirty years (since I was an undergraduate in that strange trade), but it is true that I don’t approach machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the rights of robots with the same, let us say, “discipline” as people like David Gunkel and Josh Gellers. (Perhaps this paragraph should be rehearsing the distinction erudite/dilettante.) I hope, however, that I have acquitted myself as a plausible “educated layperson”; i.e., the sort of citizen who might one day have to make an “informed decision” about the rights of our robots or the governance of our machines. Perhaps I have managed only to be, as I have described myself in another context, a legitimate peripheral irritation. So be it. Whatever the future may hold, for now AI is certainly a subject on which we may hone our natural intelligence.


This is the last post in a series of fifteen that started with “Robot Writes” back in June, and proceeded through “A Hundred Thousand Billion Bots,” about Raymond Queneau’s famous book, “The Artifice of Babel,” about Borges’s famous library, “Sentience on Stilts,” about Blake Lemoine’s infamous claim for LaMDA, “The Anxiety of Artifice,” about the existential dread of machines, “An Infamous Device,” about the Tower of Babel, “Automatic Sensemaking” and “Are Language Models Deprived of Electric Sleep,” two experiments with GPT-3, “The Automatic C,” a reflection of the ability of machines to pass exams, “Handwriting,” an attempt to recover my wits, “Do Transformers Desire Electric Rights,” an attempt to answer a challenge from Steven Marlow, “Subject-of-a-Text,” a reflection on animal rights, “I Am the Text. The Text is Me. (Or, There Is Nothing Outside the River),” a close analysis of the “personhood” of the Whanganui River, and, “The Virginia Incident,” which is almost a deconstruction of the “rights” of delivery robots in that commonwealth.

The Virginia Incident

with apologies to Robert Ludlum

In 2017, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law giving “all the rights and responsibilities applicable to a pedestrian” to delivery robots. In “The Rights of Robots”, David Gunkel invokes this law to show that, “Rights does not automatically and exclusively mean human rights.” This will not, of course, be news to anyone who is familiar with animal rights or the rights of nature, or, indeed, to someone familiar with corporate rights, which is perhaps the most common form of non-human legal personhood. Indeed, David is careful to note that “In granting [pedestrian] status and the rights and responsibilities that go with it to personal delivery robots, the State Legislature was not seeking to resolve or even address the big questions of robot moral standing or AI/robot personhood.” But on Twitter, David and, especially, Josh Gellers are often a bit more direct, citing the law to argue that “we already have robots with legal rights”.

I have had many stimulating exchanges with them over this law, and I thought now would be a good time to bring the arguments together in a more coherent form. To make sure we’re all starting on the same page, and with the issue clearly in view, I want to begin by quoting the key sentence in the Virginia law and summarizing in the simplest possible terms the interpretations that are at issue. §46.2-908.1:1 of the Code of Virginia states:

D. Subject to the requirements of this section, a personal delivery device operating on a sidewalk or crosswalk shall have all the rights and responsibilities applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstance.

From this, David and Josh conclude that robots have rights in Virginia. At first pass, this may seem simply like a matter of reading the law, which says, explicitly, “… a personal delivery delivery device … shall have … rights …” But I want to argue that the ellipses are more significant than David and Josh think. I think the “requirements of this section” do more work than they recognize, as do the stipulations that the devices must be “operating” and “under the same circumstance” as a pedestrian.

We can sum up our disagreement by contrasting two interpretations of the law, call them the Gunkel-Gellers interpretation (GG) and the Thomas Basbøll interpretation (TB).

(GG) Delivery robots have rights to operate in Virginia. [Please see the updates at the bottom of this post]*

(TB) People (persons) have rights to operate delivery robots in Virginia.

If you think the difference between these two interpretations is too subtle to bother with, you won’t find this post very interesting. Otherwise, get ready to get into some legal weeds. (For a good primer on the subject, see Cindy Grimm and Kirsten Thomasen’s “On the Practicalities of Robots in Public Spaces”.)

David would like us to use Hohfeldian analysis when considering the assignment of rights. Now, I’m no expert on Hohfeld, but my attempts to engage with David’s position have forced me to try to understand the terminology of “incidents” and “correlatives” that he uses to frame his own discussions. It is presented in his book and the recent paper, and I can recommend Thompson’s 2018 celebration of the centenary of Hohfeld’s framework (Laws 7: 28) as well. The basic idea is to analyze “molecular” rights into more fundamental “incidents” that have “opposites” and, as I will be emphasizing here, “correlatives”. To take the simplest case (“a right in stricto sensu“) if one person has a right to something another has a duty not to prevent it. For example, a pedestrian has a right to cross on a green light and a driver has a duty not to run them over. Here the right to cross is the “incident” and the duty to stop is the “correlative” in what is called “jural relation” between the driver and the pedestrian. Crucially, for Hohfeld, only persons can be the subjects of duties and rights.

We can see the importance of the jural relation between persons once we include what the Virigina Code calls “vehicles” and “devices”. Consider, for example, a traffic incident (not in the Hohfeldian sense, strictly speaking, mind you!) between a car and a bike. Suppose that the bike has the right of way and the car has the duty to yield. It is obviously not the machines (the bicycle and the automobile) that have here been assigned rights and duties but their “operators” (the rider and the driver). In Hohfeldian terms, the driver may “violate” their duty by “invading” the right of the rider, literally, invading the bike lane, for example. Neither the car nor the bicycle are (juridically) invaded or violated (although either may be seriously damaged) because neither are persons and therefore the subjects of the correlative rights and duties.

Likewise, the interactions between cars, bicycles, and pedestrians is governed by the law, which specifies the jural relations between them, i.e., stipulates their rights and duties (or, as the Virginia Code puts it, “responsibilities”). Cars cannot drive on the sidewalks and pedestrians must not obstruct traffic by jaywalking, on pain of violating their duties to each other. This is all ordinary, trivial stuff. But it will become important when we consider the question of whether an “incident” between a delivery robot and automobile or bicycle can be imagined. Can the delivery robot’s “pedestrian rights” find correlative duties in cars and bikes? As I pointed out, they would have to find them in the people who operate them, and that’s our first clue to what the law is really saying.

Remember how we learned that Te Awa Tupua is not identical with the Whanganui River; “it is merely river-kindred”? The same is true of what the Virginia Code calls a “personal delivery device operating”; it is not simply identical with the six-wheeled robot that is bringing you your take-out order. Like Te Awa Tupua, an operating personal delivery device, is a unified whole consisting of mechanical, human and, if I may, metaphysical elements. Unlike a human body, it has no rights expcept when it operating legally “on a sidewalk or crosswalk”. To be sure, a human body only has pedestrian rights “under the same circumstance”; but what makes us different is that we are capable of bearing other rights under other circumstances. We are persons.

Source: Wikipedia

How does the PDD become capable of bearing rights when operating? It does so by legally becoming a “device” in the care of a “person”, just like a bicycle. It took me some close reading of the law to understand this fully, but I’m now certain that the best way to understand the “rights” of personal delivery devices in Virginia is figuratively. Just as a pedestrian carrying a wooden plank along the sidewalk has a duty (correlated with the rights of other pedestrians) that reaches all along the length of the plank, so too does the operator of the PDD have a right to have the robot cross an intersection and not have it be run over by a car. The operator, in this incident, does not have the right to not be run over themselves (though I suppose we do have that right when sitting in a control room far from traffic too) but the driver of the car does have a duty to the operator not to run over the PDD. A violation of that duty is a invasion of the operator’s right, not the robot’s. To think otherwise is to think that the plank, not the person carrying it, invaded the rights of the pedestrian he smacked jape-like on the back of the head.

“Okay, that may all sound very sensible,” I hear you saying, “but is that actually what the law says? Doesn’t it clearly say that the device has rights?” Well, let’s have a look. First, I discovered that the law does actually talk about the “rights” of bicycles in very similar ways, and in that case we’d obviously read the expression figuratively — i.e., as metonymy for the rights of the rider of the bike to move the bike in certain ways and the duty to move it in certain other ways — not as literally making a bike the subject of legal rights. In §46.2-904.1, covering electric power-assisted bicycles, we read the following:

A. Except as otherwise provided in this section, an electric power-assisted bicycle or an operator of an electric power-assisted bicycle shall be afforded all the rights and privileges, and be subject to all of the duties, of a bicycle or the operator of a bicycle. An electric power-assisted bicycle is a vehicle to the same extent as is a bicycle.

Notice that if we take this literally, the law is referring to the rights of both electric and traditional bicycles, saying one shall have the all the rights and duties of the other, and therefore implying, again, if we take it literally, that these devices are rights-bearing subjects. That’s obviously nonsense, so I think we can safely conclude that the law does, at least sometimes, want to be taken figuratively.

Indeed, as I suggested in my last post, Derrida might point out that there is nothing outside of the law. Or, rather, the meaning of any particular sentence in the law must be traced through the play of signification that operates in the context of the entire law, and the context of the application of that law. We must make “the effort to take this limitless context into account, to pay the sharpest and broadest attention possible to context, and thus to an incessant movement of recontextualization” (Limited, Inc., p. 136). We can see how this works already in the core sentence I quoted at the outset.

D. Subject to the requirements of this section, a personal delivery device operating on a sidewalk or crosswalk shall have all the rights and responsibilities applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstance.

Well, what are the “requirements of this section”? The context of the section provides, first of all, strict conditions under which a PDD may operate. I’ll leave out the more mundane of these and emphasize only the ones I think matter for the present discussion.

B. A personal delivery device shall:
4. Include a unique identifying device number;
5. Include a means of identifying the personal delivery device operator that is in a position and of such a size to be clearly visible;
E. A personal delivery device operator shall maintain insurance that provides general liability coverage of at least $100,000 for damages arising from the combined operations of personal delivery devices under a personal delivery device operator’s control.
F. Any entity or person who uses a personal delivery device to engage in criminal activity is criminally liable for such activity.

In other words, a PDD doesn’t have any rights unless it is clearly and distinctly associated with an operator. Indeed, if we look at the broader context of “this section”, namely, the definitions that are provided at §46.2-100, there seems to be no doubt about the importance of “operators” to “devices”.

Except as otherwise provided, for the purposes of this title, any device herein defined as a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, motorized skateboard or scooter, moped, or personal delivery device shall be deemed not to be a motor vehicle.

This makes it pretty clear what “sort of thing” we’re dealing with here. Moreover,

“Personal delivery device” means a powered device operated primarily on sidewalks and crosswalks and intended primarily for the transport of property on public rights-of-way that does not exceed 500 pounds, excluding cargo, and is capable of navigating with or without the active control or monitoring of a natural person. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a personal delivery device shall not be considered a motor vehicle or a vehicle.

That is, a PDD is a device that is in fact “operated”. By whom?

“Personal delivery device operator” means an entity or its agent that exercises direct physical control or monitoring over the navigation system and operation of a personal delivery device. For the purposes of this definition, “agent” means a person not less than 16 years of age charged by an entity with the responsibility of navigating and operating a personal delivery device. “Personal delivery device operator” does not include (i) an entity or person who requests the services of a personal delivery device to transport property or (ii) an entity or person who only arranges for and dispatches the requested services of a personal delivery device.

When I discuss this with David and Josh, we generally end things here, at an impasse that can be expressed as a challenge. “See you in court,” as David put it in the case of Te Awa Tupua. The choice between the GG and TB interpretation of §46.2-908.1:1F ultimately comes down to a prediction about future court proceedings.

That is, if you believe, after reading the law as closely (or more closely) than I have, that robots do literally “have rights” on the sidewalks and in the crosswalks of the streets of Virginia then you believe that one day a court decision will turn on this. If, by contrast, you believe, as I do, that the law does not give rights to the robots, but to the companies that operate them, that the correlative rights and duties are distributed among ordinary legal persons — drivers, riders, walkers, and the “entities and their agents” (companies and their employees) that operate delivery robots — that move about in the traffic of the commonwealth, then you believe that no such case will ever arise. You believe that if someone were to hold a robot, not an operator, responsible for an accident, or a lawyer were to bring suit on behalf of a robot, not the company that owns it, the case would be immediately dismissed. I would have to admit that such an “incident” would puzzle me even so. But, as I hope I have shown, it would not, in any case, be Hohfeldian.

*Update (23/08/22, 15:30): David has objected to my original formulation of his interpretation. Even with “to operate” struck out, I’m not sure he’s satisfied. I’m currently trying to work out something that he and Josh can accept. Will update again when I’ve reached an agreement with them.
Update (24/08/22, 12:30): It does not look like an agreement will be possible (see David’s tweet and the associated thread). I stand by my own analysis of the law, but I’m no longer sure I understand David’s or Josh’s. It turns out that they don’t, as I had supposed, want to claim that delivery robots “have rights” in Virginia in any straightforward sense. To be clear: I don’t think they have rights in any sense.

Final update (28/08/22, 16:40): After some back-channel correspondence with David, we have arrived at a statement of the issue that we can both endorse:

  • According to David, the Virginia law extends the rights of pedestrians to delivery robots operating in the state. On his reading, the device itself has the same rights and responsibilities as a pedestrian when moving around on the sidewalks and in the crosswalks of the streets of Virginia. To put this in Hohfeldian terms, ‘jural relations’ exist between drivers and robots in traffic, just as they exist between drivers and people in traffic.
  • On my reading, the law does not extend rights to the delivery robots themselves; it only gives rights to the owners of delivery robots to operate these devices. The law requires others to respect the robots as if they were pedestrians and requires operators to ensure that the robots follow the same rules as pedestrians. Putting this in Hohfeldian terms, there is no ‘jural relation’ between drivers and robots in Virginia; rather, the relevant rights and duties govern the relation between the driver of a vehicle and the operator of a delivery device.