Archive for May 18th, 2012


robot law 101?

Post from Alan Brown:

Alan Brown

I recently spent a weekend at a conference, We Robot, listening to lawyers and technologists discuss the implications of autonomous robots. It was an eye-opener. Especially because nearly everyone at the conference truly believed that we needed to set standards now, because autonomous robots are about to make a real impact on our lives.

There has been a real explosion in robot capabilities. Only eight years ago, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane analyzed what tasks humans and computers did best. The argued that robots were unlikely to replace humans in tasks where rules were difficult to understand, such as driving a truck.

Last week, Nevada licensed Google’s driverless (as in “autonomous”) cars to drive on state roads. That didn’t take long.

More is coming. That is why A. Michael Froomkin, a Miami Law professor, organized the We Robot conference. “Robots are approaching a takeoff point,” he said. Within the next decade, we may find thousands and then millions of autonomous robots working along side us.

Froomkin has seen it before. He began working on Internet law in the early 1990s. By then, engineers had already deployed key standards. And because they were thinking about technology and efficiency, rather than security or privacy, they could not build those concerns into the core of the emerging online network.

Froomkin wants to avoid that mistake. “Thanks to events like this one, people can get in on the ground floor and make our concerns known,” he said.

It will not be easy. The conference’s first paper asked how the law should think about autonomous robots. It was authored by University of Washington’s Neil Richards, a law professor, and Bill Smart, a computer scientist.

It soon turned into a debate about the nature of autonomous robots themselves. One group argued that robots are tools, and that users directed them the same way they control a hammer.

A second group compared them to horses. While we can train, harness, and contain these animals, the law has long recognized that horses have a mind of their own. They can panic, bolt, break their harness or jump a fence. The law acknowledges this and does not fault the owner who tries his or her best to restrain his animal.

The argument went back and forth, with good points on both sides. I’ll come back to some other aspects of the conference in a future post.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2012

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