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.

Robotics FutureB

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.

For example, Ryan Calo from the University of Washington School of Law recommends the creation of what he calls a Federal Robotics Commission. But despite the name, the FRC wouldn't be a group of bureaucrats that regulate robotics, but rather be more like NACA, which was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which eventually became NASA.

But during its time as NACA, the organization, which was founded in 1915, was instrumental in a number of advances in aviation, aircraft design, coordination and research. Eventually, NACA became NASA, which continued the aeronautical research, but moved into spaceflight. Calo envisions the NRC as having a similar function for robotics.

One of the questions that is already looming in the background for users of robotic systems, including the users of robots put to work in industry and manufacturing, is determining who is responsible for their safe and responsible operation.

If a robot causes harm, is it the fault of the robot? That's unlikely since an inanimate object really can't have the concept of responsibility. So is it the owner? Or perhaps it's the person who programmed it? Maybe it's the company that manufactured it?

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...