Future of Robotics Debate Stumbles Over Question: What Is a Robot? - Page 2

Right now, there aren't any really good answers to that question. But right now, society is on the cusp of having to come up with that answer. Calo suggests a number of ideas including selective immunity.

But there are other ideas on how that should work. John D. Villasenor, a senior fellow at Brookings, suggests that existing product liability laws handled by states and localities are already in place and are sufficiently flexible to handle anything caused by a robot. But I have to look at how robots are already being used and wonder.

One thing that comes to mind actually happened years ago when hardly anyone realized robots were already in use in the office. I was the executive officer of a military facility that included a huge building with thousands of workers. Moving through this facility several times a day was a mail delivery robot that trundled along to each office where it stopped to drop off and pick up mail.

This machine was programmed to stop instantly when it sensed a person was too close. But suppose that hadn't worked and as a result ran over someone's foot? Who would have been responsible for any legal liability: the government, the maker of the machine or the person who had programmed it?

The questions go on from there. But one potential function of such an agency, if one were to exist as Calo suggests, might be to sort out what is a robot and what is not—and in the process help determine what sort of device would fall under its auspices.

Professor Gregory McNeal from Pepperdine University alluded to this issue when trying to separate the discussion of drones from that of robots. McNeal noted that the discussion of robotics has been clouded because some groups have vilified robots in general by intentionally lumping in the controversial privacy and safety issues surrounding aerial drones. He noted that demonizing drones, and by association robots, polarizes the discussion of their potential legitimate uses.

Calo suggests that robotics is a transformative technology, just as the Internet and aviation were transformative. But for such transformation to be incorporated into society and the world economy with sanity, the discussion needs to be moved beyond the political and emotional.

In a sense, the discussion of how robotics can fit into society needs to be transformed as well. The next time you're discussing Google's driverless cars, which are also robots, remember that they too are now part of the discussion about transformative, but controversial technology. However, chances are that right now drones aren't part of that discussion at all.

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...