Sunday, September 10, 2023

Murder By Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness, by S.L. Huang

Clarkesworld, December 2022

Mariah Lee-Cassidy, currently imprisoned for fraud, is the putative creator of a chatbot called Sylvie, who targets nasty characters the law is never going to do anything about. People who, if they are ever caught at all, will get slap-on-the-wrist punishments for mostly technical violations that don't come close to the real damage they've done. The poster boy example is Ron Harrison, CEO of a medical supply company facing the potential recall of a defective pacemaker. He has successfully buried the evidence of the defect, and gradually upgraded the pacemaker to eliminate the defect, without announcing those changes. Some people die, but it's not blamed on his company, and he gets bonuses instead of a prison sentence.

Then he starts getting texts, that start off very vaguely threatening ("I'm watching u"), and progress to more and more explicit, without ever saying exactly what "Sylvie" knows he's done. Harrison's life starts to fall apart, his marriage, his career, his finances. His mental stability. During this, as a result of this, the truth about the pacemaker defect comes out.

He's only the first victim. The others are as deserving as he is, but someone must be behind "Sylvie," and this is at best vigilante justice.

The first person narrator is investigating Lee-Cassidy, the Sylvie bot, and the knotty question of who exactly is responsible for the deaths that Sylvie causes. Can anyone be held responsible for what a bot released into the wild does? Is this anything other than really bad programming, that got away from the programmer? Is the program itself capable of any responsibility?

And of course, the most discouraging question, because the answer is obvious: Is there any way to delete Sylvie or similar programs from the internet?

It's a thoughtful story, engaging even though there's arguably only two characters, who engage in some conversation and monologue. Even the section on Harrison, which has the most action, is in the style of, not even current news, but an after the fact thought-piece. Yet it held my interest, and overall it's an interesting discussion of the possible issues here.

Worth noting that, based on the story's timeline, Sylvie is potentially out there now.

I received this story as part of the 2023 Hugo Voters Packet.

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