There’s been a lot of buzz about robots lately. Robotics has penetrated nearly every walk of life—from homes to hospitals, public spaces, and even the battlefield—and such technological developments have undoubtedly begun to affect our social, cultural, and corporate institutions.
As such, robots are also affecting our society, law, and culture. At the 2014 “We Robot” Conference at the University of Miami that just wrapped up (April 4 to 5, 2014), scholars gathered to discuss a number of legal, ethical, and moral questions related to emerging robotic technologies. Conference topics ranged from considerations of regulatory schemes for domestic drone oversight to an ethical guide to human/robot interactions.
At the conference, cyberlaw professor Ryan Calo discussed his forthcoming paper “Robotics and the New Cyberlaw.” Internet law defined the vanguard of cyberlaw issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Calo argues that the next wave of legal showdowns will relate to robotics, which have an altogether different set of essential qualities when compared with the Internet.
Robotics blurs the line between people and instruments. More so than any other technology in history, robots feel to us like social actors. “Robotics combines, arguably for the first time, the promiscuity of information with the capacity to do real harm,” said Calo at the conference. Our tendencies toward anthropomorphizing robots are so strong that “soldiers sometimes jeopardize themselves to preserve the ‘lives’ of military robots in the field.”
Laws designed for humans could prove inadequate when applied to robots. In an interview with Ars, Calo elaborated on what some of those vexing situations may be. For instance, how does the legal system redress grievances when the party causing harm is a robot?
Robots behaving badly
Imagine a bot that automatically purchases items off Amazon, buying something that’s illegal to buy and sell in certain locations (like Nazi propaganda). “Under the existing precedent, you have all of these harms, and there is nobody to sue.”
Or consider the complications of suing robot “surgeons” for medical malpractice. One crucial factor for juries to consider in medical malpractice litigation is whether hospitals have established protocols to ensure significant doctor-patient contact. But the doctor’s actions might not be that useful in determining why a bad outcome has occurred. “If a surgeon does something and there is malpractice, if something went wrong with the equipment, such as defective soap or scalpel, that is an understood scenario where the soap and scalpel don’t feel relevant,” he said. “But when surgery is done by robots, it feels different.”
While it isn’t immediately obvious, algorithmically generated news content is also a kind of robot. If that practice grows, it will create its own legal challenges. Recently, the Los Angeles Times used such a tool to write a story about an earthquake with a curious byline: it described the article as being “created by an algorithm written by the author.”
What if such tools were used to cover something potentially more controversial, like arrests? A mistake in the news-generation system could “create” a story suggesting a politician had been arrested when, in fact, she had not been. That’s a serious error that could lead to a lawsuit against a human author. But a robot?
If such a scenario seems far-fetched, consider the example of comedian Stephen Colbert’s algorithm-driven Twitter account @RealHumanPraise. The account combined names of Fox News anchors with Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews. In an op-ed in Forbes, Calo noted that the algorithm has generated such results as Sarah Palin is “a party girl for the ages” and that she is “wandering the nighttime streets trying to find a lover.”
Obviously, this is clearly satire, as Calo noted. In addition, the First Amendment requires that, in order for a public figure to sue for defamation, one has to show “actual malice.” In this case, most would likely agree that’s missing on the part of the story’s “author.” Still, it’s a bot-run Twitter account spewing untrue, damaging facts about politicians. It isn’t hard to imagine a slightly tweaked situation where a defamation suit would be forthcoming. “In that case, are we left with a victim with no perpetrator?” asks Calo.
Like it or not, machines have begun to take on more roles that have traditionally been performed by humans. “In short, we may be on the cusp of creating a new category of legal subject, halfway between person and res [thing],” writes Calo. “And I believe the law will have to make room for this category.”
Day One -April 4th
Peter Asaro is the We Robot 2014 Discussant for Jason Millar’s paper Proxy Prudence – Rethinking Models of Responsibility for Semi-autonomous Robots
Jodi Forlizzi is the We Robot 2014 Discussant for Ann Bartow’s paper Robots as Labor Creating Devices: Robotic Technologies and the Expansion of the Second Shift
A Code of Ethics for the Human-Robot Interaction Profession Laurel D. Riek and Don Howard
Consumer Cloud Robotics and the Fair Information Practice Principles: The Policy Risks and Opportunities Ahead Kris Hauser, Andrew A. Proia, Drew T. Simshaw
Regulating the Loop: Ironies of Automation Law Meg Leta Ambrose
Day Two – April 5th
Neil Richards is the Discussant for Kevin Bankston and Amie Stepanovich’s paper When Robot Eyes Are Watching You: The Law & Policy of Automated Communications Surveillance
Mary Anne Franks is the Discussant for Gregory Conti, Woodrow Hartzog, John C. Nelson and Lisa A. Shay’s paper A Conservation Theory of Governance for Automated Law Enforcement
When Robot Eyes Are Watching You: The Law & Policy of Automated Communications Surveillance Kevin Bankston and Amie Stepanovich
Risk, Product Liability Trends, Triggers, and Insurance in Commercial Aerial Robots
David K. Breyer, Donna A. Dulo, Gale A. Townsley, and Stephen S. Wu
Considerations of a Legal Framework for the Safe and Resilient Operation of Autonomous Aerial Robots Cameron R. Cloar and Donna A. Dulo
Self-Defense Against Robots A. Michael Froomkin and Zak Colangelo
Chief Justice John Roberts is a Robot Ian Kerr and Carissima Mathen