‘I Want to Study the Social Life of Things’

Was my kid serious when she put that into her college application essay?  I’m not sure; she’s been around Dad studying UAVs and military robotics for years, expressing distinct uninterest and rolled eyes at the dinner table, but probably absorbing something. But without ever having seen a robot, weirdly, because the kinds of robot things I do are not about the robots or remote-directed systems you can build in kits (though DIYDrones is rapidly changing this).  But it’s entirely possible she thought, here’s what will cause an engineering school like Rice to fall for a humanities major.

Still, it’s a good line, and not a crazy idea.  ‘The social life of things’.  As robotics gradually becomes integrated into ordinary social life – outside of special settings like factories – then the social aspects of robotics takes on greater importance.  Design to facilitate human comfort levels with robots; the ways in which social interactions change in the presence of robotic systems or how they change when robots substitute for humans; legal questions about product and design liability, and many other legal questions besides; the economics of the robotics design-and-production sector; and lots more. Among the “lots more” is ‘ethics and robotics’, and so I’m delighted to note that Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon’s famed Robotics Institute has posted a Teacher’s Guide for teaching robotics and ethics.  (H/T the estimable Stanford scholar Ryan Calo.)  The course abstract reads:

As robotic products begin to integrate more comprehensively with society, the relationship between robotic interaction and the ethical ramifications of this technologies’ impact becomes very relevant from viewpoints of design, critical analysis, legislation and widespread adoption. In this class we study the peculiar aspects of robotics that reveals ethical issues with new urgency, and study explicit and unintended consequences of new technology on personal, organizational and cultural levels. This course uses readings from psychology, sociology, human factors and classical texts to provide ethical analytical frameworks, then turns to recent robotic experiments and new advances in robotic technologies. Students will participate in discussions based on assigned readings, and will work in teams on in-depth analyses of concurrent robotics projects.

This teaching guide provides resources appropriate for planning anything from a semester-long study of Ethics and Robotics to a single-day introduction to the subject, appropriate for a more general course such as Introduction to Robotics.

The guide itself is excellent – really terrific – wide-ranging across many disciplines.  A teacher would have to make a fundamental decision as to whether the course was aimed to introduce engineers to the social, philosophical, and legal issues of robotics (and so assuming the technical engineering background), or instead aimed to introduce non-engineers to these problems (and so assuming no technical engineering background).  But the materials are there for an outstanding course – or several.

I would love to offer a course like this, reconfigured as an interdisciplinary law course.  This raises a certain difficulty.  I’d love to offer it at my law school, but frankly have hesitations as to whether it would be a good use of student time.  On the one hand, it is a classic third year seminar, an interdisciplinary course across law-and-x but also across different fields of law.  We are starting to move beyond robotic law being just tort law like any other – accident law, product liability, etc.; it is starting to take on characteristics of its own.  Moreover, I do believe that over the course of my current students’ professional lives, robotics will become sufficiently mainstreamed that there will be some version of robotic law, whether attached to the technology as a discipline or scattered yet identified as “robotics” across other subfields of law.

On the other hand, as a teacher at a mid-tier law school and looking to my students’ needs, I’ve moved gradually away from “cool” topics in favor of fundamentals. I’m not sure I could recommend this course rather than an advanced course in commercial law, for example.  This would be a great course at Harvard or Stanford, but I’m less convinced it makes sense for my institution and my students.

(Shameless pitch: Actually, what would be great would be for Rice University’s Baker Institute to invite me to be a visiting professor for a semester, and teach an interdisciplinary (the kinds of fields Nourbakhsh identifies, plus law and law-and-economics) version of this for non-STEM students, a version for STEM students, and then a separate course on military robotics – strategy and policy, law, and ethics (UAVs, other battlefield robotics, targeted killing and the future of covert action using robotic and remote-directed systems, and the future of autonomous systems and autonomous weapons systems).  Rice, because I like it and have a connection, but frankly any school with a strong engineering school and robotics program, but also a serious humanities and social science program.  Law school great but not necessary; maybe Stanford Law School and the Hoover Institution, UCLA’s Law and Philosophy Program; but also places like Harvey Mudd or Rensselaer.  This is what happens when parents become empty nesters – suddenly it’s possible to consider going different places!)

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