Future of Robotics Debate Stumbles Over Question: What Is a Robot?
NEWS ANALYSIS: Some people are saying that it's time to regulate robots. But it's hard to determine how to regulate this technology when there is precious little agreement on what constitutes a robot.WASHINGTON—When a prestigious organization such as the Brookings Institution here in the nation's capital decides to study civilian robotics, you know that at the very least the organization will present some thought-provoking views. In that sense, Brookings delivered. Unfortunately, the analysts who were delivering the results of their studies on the Future of Civilian Robotics have yet to agree what actually constitutes robotics. Part of the reason for the confusion over what should be an easy question is that the think-tank is located in Washington, DC, where competing political agendas can easily obscure the realities of science or technology. Robotics is certainly one of those areas that bring out those competing agendas. This gets even more complicated when you consider that aerial drones might also be robots. Thus it should be no surprise then that as soon as the D-word was mentioned, the conversation among the august researchers at Brookings immediately veered into discussions of privacy rights, Federal Aviation Administration regulation of things that fly and the critical issue of what happens when you fly small drones over the heads of people with shotguns.
The fact that the serious conversation about the place of robots in government and society was sidetracked into an irrelevant side discussion about drones is too bad. There are, in fact, some significant issues involving robots that deserve serious attention by legislators and regulators. One of those issues involves deciding what part of government needs to be involved in regulation.