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Robotics and the law: time to catch up

14 July 2015

Twenty years in, the law is finally starting to get used to the Internet. Now it is imperative that the law determines how to deal effectively with robotics.

Recent headlines declaring “Robot Kills Man in Germany” are examples of growing news coverage about the impact of robots on society - currently the subject of a new law review article penned by a University of Washington (UW) faculty member.

Twenty years in, the law is finally starting to get used to the Internet. Now it is imperative, says Ryan Calo, an assistant professor in the UW School of Law, that the law determines how to deal effectively with the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence.

“Technology has not stood still," writes Calo in his article, 'Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw'  published in the June edition of California Law Review. "The same private institutions that developed the Internet, from the armed forces to search engines, have initiated a significant shift toward robotics and artificial intelligence.” Robotics, Calo adds, is shaping up to be the next transformative technology of our time: “Courts that struggled for the proper metaphor to apply to the Internet will struggle anew with robotics.”

Though mention of robotics and artificial intelligence can prompt images of unstoppable Terminators and mutinous HAL 9000 computers, Calo dismisses such drama early on, but warns that the widespread distribution of robotics in society will, like the Internet, create deep social, cultural, economic and of course legal tensions, long before any such sci-fi-style future. In Calo's view, robotics is essentially different to the Internet and so will raise different legal issues.

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

But does that mean robotics and artificial intelligence need different treatment under the law, or different laws entirely, than the technologies of which they are made, such as computers?

In the paper and a 2014 article in Slate on the same subject, Calo relates an anecdote about Chicago judge and law professor Frank Easterbrook, who in 1996 famously likened research in Internet law to studying 'the law of the horse'. Easterbrook felt any single approach is doomed, in his words, to be shallow and to miss unifying principles.

Calo quotes science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, who, in a response to Calo, wrote in The Guardian that he could not think of a legal principle applicable to robots that would not also be usefully applied to the computer, and vice versa.

“I disagreed with Easterbrook then and I disagree with Doctorow now,” Calo writes. “Robotics has a different set of essential qualities than the Internet, which animate a new set of legal puzzles.”

Calo’s conclusion is, in a sense, a follow-up to his 2014 call for the creation of a federal robotics commission in the United States; robotics and artificial intelligence, he finds, have essentially different qualities than the law has yet faced.

“So I join a chorus of voices, from Bill Gates to the White House, to assume that robotics represents an idea whose time has come," writes Calo. "The qualities, and the experiences they generate, occasion a distinct catalogue of legal and policy issues that sometimes do, and sometimes do not, echo the central questions of contemporary cyberlaw."

In conclusion, he adds: “Cyberlaw will have to engage, to a far greater degree, with the prospect of data causing physical harm, and to the line between speech and action. Rather than think of how code controls people, cyberlaw will think of what people can do to control code.”


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