Is America Incapable of Regulating Robots?

A law professor argues that a new federal agency is needed to keep pace with technological change.
Reuters

The twenty or so years legal and other academics have spent studying the Internet have paid the dividends of structure and clarity that one would hope. The problem is that technology has not stood still in the meantime.  The very same institutions that developed the Internet, from the military to household-name Internet companies like Google and Amazon, have initiated a significant shift toward a new transformative technology: robotics.  The word "significant" is actually pretty conservative: these institutions are investing, collectively, hundreds of billions of dollars in robotics and artificial intelligence.  Ryan Calo

ASPEN, Colo.—Law professor Ryan Calo believes that robots are soon going to constitute a more abrupt departure from the technologies that preceded them than did the Internet from personal computers and telephones. Robotic technology is changing so fast, with such significant implications, that he believes the federal government is ill equipped to regulate the society we'll soon be living in. Hence his Friday pitch to an Aspen Ideas Festival crowd: a new federal agency to regulate robots.

The idea is not without precedent. Transformative advances like radio, vaccines, railroads, autos, and airplanes have prompted new federal agencies. Anticipating the objection that overzealous regulation might slow innovation, Calo argued that robots aren't now unregulated, they just fall under the purview of various agencies that lack the expertise to make sound, timely decisions, and who, fearing the unknown, often say "no" to desirable innovations as a result. 

A federal robotics agency could help, serving as a repository of expertise, fostering innovation in robotics and minimizing inevitable harms. "Other countries are getting serious about robotics policy," he said. "If we don't, this will be the first form of technology since steam where America did not have a leading role." His notion of what issues such a federal agency might grapple with can be found in his article "Robotics and the New Cyberlaw."

As the abstract puts it:

Robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with the capacity to do physical harm; robotic systems accomplish tasks in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance; and robots increasingly blur the line between person and instrument.

Cyberlaw can and should evolve to meet these challenges. Cyberlaw is interested, for instance, in how people are hardwired to think of going online as entering a “place,” and in the ways software constrains human behavior. The new cyberlaw will consider how we are hardwired to think of anthropomorphic machines as though they were social, and ponder the ways institutions and jurists can manage the behavior of software. Ultimately the methods and norms of cyberlaw — particularly its commitments to interdisciplinary pragmatism — will prove crucial in integrating robotics, and perhaps whatever technology follows.

If my readership includes folks who've thought a lot about robots now is the time to email. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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