Ryan Calo on Regulatory Gaps and Robotics

Ryan Calo, director for robotics at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, has a new, op-ed length essay on the ways in which robots fall in-between regulatory stools as they move from specialized factory or military functions into everyday life.  Who Will Regulate Robots?

Students of this transformative technology should keep their eye on both the claims and disavowals of authority over robots by state and federal agencies. Each hold potential dangers for our civil liberties and for the future of robotics … the mainstreaming of robotics will pose challenges for regulators. Even if it is clear that a given agency should have something to say about a robot, it is not clear exactly what the scope of their authority will be.

The Federal Aviation Administration worries about (and, for now, restricts) the domestic use of drones on the basis of safety. But the agency does not appear to have anything to say about the potential of this technology to infringe upon citizen and consumer privacy. Similarly, the National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration thinks about the impact of autonomous vehicles on safety but does not appear to have given any thought to the effects of driveless cars on citizen autonomy—for instance, were law enforcement to claim a right to force an autonomous car to slow down or pull over.

When I first mentioned my interest in robotics and the law beyond the battlefield where I have been studying it for several years, a sophisticated law professor friend asked how there were legal issues beyond tort and products liability.  The rest of the potential issues – intellectual property, etc. – were not particularly special to robots.  Ryan Calo’s scholarship has been central to showing the many ways in which this potentially transformative, but also disruptive, technology raises in its knock-on effects many legal questions.  And as he says, the avowals and disavowals of regulatory authority by existing regulatory agencies over different types and aspects of robotics raise the specter of regulating things we wish were not regulated, but also failing to regulate things we might wish were.  Comments open for this post.