Drug-buying robot cleared of all charges

A robot that bought ecstasy pills off the deep web as part of an art installation has been released after being seized by police in January.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read

The returned installation. !Mediengruppe Bitnik

When does a robot want to buy ecstasy pills? When it's part of an art installation about the deep web, the portion of the internet not indexed by most search engines. Random Darknet Shopper by Switzerland-based art group !Mediengruppe Bitnik was recently displayed as an installation as part of exhibition The Darknet -- From Memes to Onionland at the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen.

Like the name suggests, the robot's job was mystery shopper -- a true mystery shopper. It went on a weekly shopping spree, purchasing a variety of random, mystery items on the deep web with a budget of $100 in bitcoins a week.

These purchases and the packaging they arrived in were displayed alongside Random Darknet Shopper at the museum. They included a pair of Nike trainers, a pair of bootleg Diesel jeans, 10 packets of Chesterfield cigarettes, a "The Lord of the Rings" ebook collection -- and 10 pills of illegal party drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

The ecstasy and the packaging in which it arrived. !Mediengruppe Bitnik

Random Darknet Shopper was on display at the St Gallen, Switzerland-based museum from October 18, 2014. In January 2015, Swiss police seized the robot and all of its purchases.

According to a post on the !Mediengruppe Bitnik website, those items have now been returned to the artists -- except for the pills, which tested positive for MDMA and were subsequently destroyed. However, neither the robot nor its creators have been charged with criminal activity.

"We decided the Ecstasy that is in this presentation was safe and nobody could take it away. Bitnik never intended to sell it or consume it so we didn't punish them," St Gallen spokesman Thomas Hansjakob told CNBC.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik was overjoyed, noting that, along with the returned objects, the group also received the order for the withdrawal of prosecution. This stated that the possession of the ecstasy was a reasonable means of sparking public debate; and that the questions raised by the work justified the exhibition of the drugs.

"We as well as the Random Darknet Shopper have been cleared of all charges," the group wrote. "This is a great day for the bot, for us and for freedom of art!"

!Mediengruppe Bitnik