A federal robotics agency? Law professor makes the case


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Very few things capture the imagination like robots. The ability to create a being with lifelike properties and some degree of autonomy is probably about as close as humans will get to being a god.

2014_10_RobotsPaper In The Case For A Federal Robotics Commission, Ryan Calo argues for federal oversight of robotics technology. (Credit: Brookings Institution)

Robots certainly have the power to be transformative. Just look at the space program, which has more or less been taken over by robots, at least for deep space and planetary exploration. No human has ever been to Mars, yet our robots are making tire tracks all over the red planet. And we are getting closer to more terrestrial uses of robotics, from self-driving cars to military drones with increasing intelligence to cutting-edge technology like cognitive radios that can choose the frequency and power of signal to use.

Robots are also unique in that, unlike most other forms of technology, they can actually affect the physical world. That makes them much more useful — but also potentially more dangerous than something like an application or notebook.

Those two factors — their ability to be transformative and their ability to affect the world — contribute to the need for federal oversight of robotics programs. That is the argument made by Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law in a recent paper published by the Brookings Institution. Calo goes a step beyond regulation, calling for a new, independent federal agency centered on robots and robotics technology.

I tracked down Calo and asked him to explain his views on the subject and how he envisions the “Federal Robotics Commission” would operate within the federal government.

John Breeden II: How did you get into the study of robotics, and how long have you been doing that?

Ryan Calo and his first robotic friend. Ryan Calo and his first robotic friend. (Courtesy of Calo)

Ryan Calo: I have been studying robotics law for about six years, since I was a fellow at Stanford Law School. I began to see that the technology has different essential qualities than the Internet and therefore raises distinct questions of law and policy. I have been interested in robotics since I was a kid, as this photo shows.

JB: Robots are often defined in different ways. For example, there used to be a TV show featuring fighting robots, but they were really just remote-controlled vehicles. I assume that you would not consider them a true robot? So how would you define a robot today, and can you give some examples?

RC: As I discuss in my article “Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw,” which is forthcoming in 2015 from California Law Review, I think of robots as having three elements: They sense the world around them, they process what they sense and they act upon the world. This definition is mostly meant to distinguish robots from previous or constituent technologies, as your question suggests. Each of the elements also exists on a spectrum. Thus, a remote-control car, or drone, with a camera is not a robot because it does not process information. Whereas the Mars rover, though it mostly executes commands, is a robot because it has an autonomous mode and knows to disregard or alter commands in some instances as operational realities demand.

JB: One of the points you make in the Brookings paper is that robots are special in that they have the ability to transform our society. You make comparisons to things like how train travel transformed the U.S. Can you explain how you believe robots will have this type of transformative effect?

RC: I think that robotics, taken as a whole, will constitute a transformative technology on par with computers or trains, yes. They permit action at a distance, for instance, and can solve problems in ways no human would or would expect. The evidence has to do with the pattern of interest in robotics. First, the military, artists and hobbyists. Then, large-scale investment by private industry. The final step is the mainstream consumer adoption, which I believe to be around the corner.

JB: In term of this new federal robotics agency, do you envision that it should be its own entity, or would it fall under the banner of something else, such as Transportation or Homeland Security?

Ryan Calo is calling for a new federal agency to regulate robots. Ryan Calo is calling for a new federal agency to regulate robots.

RC: I hope for a standalone agency, largely because I believe each branch of government —executive, legislative, and judicial — plus the states would benefit from greater expertise in robotics.

JB: What should the responsibilities of the robotic agency be, and what powers or authority would it possess?

RC: The agency, as I envision it, would not regulate or enforce the way, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission does. Indeed, it may have very little power or authority in the classic sense. Rather, its main charge would be to accrue and share expertise in much the same way as the Congressional Research Service or the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

JB: Can you give some examples where having a federal agency dedicated to robots would help improve a situation or provide a benefit that we wouldn’t experience without it?

RC: In the white paper, I give a few examples of what I think of as unwise or stalled policy that might have been avoided. Perhaps a Federal Robotics Commission could help the Federal Communications Commission or Federal Aviation Administration green light technologies like cognitive radio and drones about which they remain uncomfortable. Conversely, the commission could have sounded a cautionary note about robotic surgery before the Food and Drug Administration let it through.

JB: What can people do to learn more about robotics technology and the laws and oversight you feel is needed in order to properly govern them in the future?

RC: I would welcome readers who want to learn more to read my articles, and to register for the fourth annual robotics law and policy conference at werobot2015.org.

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