The Updated (and Expanded) Laws of Robotics

Image by: Hatsukari715. © Public domain via wikimedia commonsThe future is closer than we think. It might not have flying cars (yet), but it does have a growing need to start legislating the other cohort of Tomorrow: robotics.

The We Robot 2014 Conference met in Miami, Florida, last week (April 4th and 5th) to discuss the wide and varied topic that is the legal regulation of robots. Just because robots aren’t currently in our homes performing menial tasks or patrolling our streets in lieu of human police doesn’t mean that they haven’t already massively impacted our lives – and do so more every day. For instance, an Australian triathlete was injured when someone allegedly hacked a camera drone (think of it as a flying remote controlled robot), wrested control away from the operator, and caused it to startle the runner who fell. Who is culpable for that? Is it solely the hacker, or could it be the company that had not yet fixed a known exploit, or maybe  the operator for not running updated software (or running it at all knowing there was a problem)?  And what happens to the robot if the exploit can’t be fixed?

Asimov, who many consider to be the father of our modern concept of robots through his grand and illustrious science fiction career, envisioned that robots themselves would need only three simple laws to maintain their proper place in society, and that the simpler the laws were, the better.  Humans, on the other hand, love to debate and find loopholes, and it’s really to this end that the legal landscape of the technology was discussed and less so about how to control the robots themselves.  The public wants to know who is responsible when a robot “misbehaves” and causes physical, mental, or even financial harm.  Therefore, it’s important to imagine what must be weighed out as machines are created with greater complexity – and as those complex machines work together with growing autonomy away from direct human control.

Luckily for us, the brainiacs at the Miami School of Law are asking the hard questions, and there are even periodicals devoted to exploring the laws surrounding robotics.  In the meantime, we’re confident in our own capacity to build robots that will fall well within legal parameters (assuming we consciously stick to Asimov’s Laws ourselves).  Makers and inventors have been doing it for hundreds of years, but our technology has frequently outstripped our (legal) humanity in the past.  As an example, there was the desperate scramble for governments to establish proper jurisdiction guidelines once interstate and international shopping was made possible by this little thing called “the internet”, and that’s not even getting into the local and state law changes that had to be retrofitted in some places to include digital communications such as emails, texts, and social media posts in relation to harassment suits.

Although no actual legislation was drafted or proposed as a direct result of the We Robot conference this year, it’s gratifying to know that these questions are being pondered in a full and complete fashion.  Moderating the world of the future isn’t exactly something that should be rushed into.

What do you think should be on the priority list for robotic legislation in the future?

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