October 19, 2019

Robots and the Law

Stanford Law School held a panel Thursday on “Legal Challenges in an Age of Robotics“. I happened to be in town so I dropped by and heard an interesting discussion.

Here’s the official announcement:

Once relegated to factories and fiction, robots are rapidly entering the mainstream. Advances in artificial intelligence translate into ever-broadening functionality and autonomy. Recent years have seen an explosion in the use of robotics in warfare, medicine, and exploration. Industry analysts and UN statistics predict equally significant growth in the market for personal or service robotics over the next few years. What unique legal challenges will the widespread availability of sophisticated robots pose? Three panelists with deep and varied expertise discuss the present, near future, and far future of robotics and the law.

The key questions are how robots differ from past technologies, and how those differences change the law and policy issues we face.

Three aspects of robots seemed to recur in the discussion: robots take action that is important in the world; robots act autonomously; and we tend to see robots as beings and not just machines.

The last issue — robots as beings — is mostly a red herring for our purposes, notwithstanding its appeal as a conversational topic. Robots are nowhere near having the rights of a person or even of a sentient animal, and I suspect that we can’t really imagine what it would be like to interact with a robot that qualified as a conscious being. Our brains seem to be wired to treat self-propelled objects as beings — witness the surprising acceptance of robot “dogs” that aren’t much like real dogs — but that doesn’t mean we should grant robots personhood.

So let’s set aside the consciousness issue and focus on the other two: acting in the world, and autonomy. These attributes are already present in many technologies today, even in the purely electronic realm. Consider, for example, the complex of computers, network equipment, and software make up Google’s data centers. Its actions have significant implications in the real world, and it is autonomous, at least in the sense that the panelists seemed to using the term “autonomous” — it exhibits complex behavior without direct, immediate human instruction, and its behavior is often unpredictable even to its makers.

In the end, it seemed to me that the legal and policy issues raised by future robots will not be new in kind, but will just be extrapolations of the issues we’re already facing with today’s complex technologies — and not a far extrapoloation but more of a smooth progression from where we are now. These issues are important, to be sure, and I was glad to hear smart panelists debating them, but I’m not convinced yet that we need a law of the robot. When it comes to the legal challenges of technology, the future will be like the past, only more so.

Still, if talking about robots will get policymakers to pay more attention to important issues in technology policy, then by all means, let’s talk about robots.

New Podcast: CITP Conversations

Over the last few months, as the pace of activity at CITP has increased, we’ve fielded a growing number of requests from points around the web, and around the world, for podcasts and other ways to “attend” our events virtually. We hear you, and we’re working on it.

Today, I’m very pleased to announce a new CITP podcast, which will carry audio of some of our events as well as brief conversations recorded expressly for the podcast feed. Currently, those conversations include one with Paul Ohm on Net Neutrality and the Wiretap Act, and another with Ed on “Rebooting our Cyber-Security Policy,” drawing on the themes of his recent Thursday Forum talk.

We are also working to offer more of our events in video formats, and we remain open to exploring additional options. Stay tuned!

On digital TV and natural disasters

As I’m writing this, the eye of Hurricane Ike is roughly ten hours from landfall.  The weather here, maybe 60 miles inland, is overcast with mild wind.  Meanwhile, the storm surge has already knocked out power for ten thousand homes along the coast, claims the TV news, humming along in the background as I write this, which brings me to a thought.

Next year, analog TV gets turned off, and it’s digital or nothing.  Well, what happens in bad weather?  Analog TV degrades somewhat, but is still watchable.  Digital TV works great until it starts getting uncorrectable errors.  There’s a brief period where you see block reconstruction errors and, with even a mild additional amount of error, it’s just unwatchable garbage.  According to AntennaWeb, most of the terrestrial broadcast towers are maybe ten miles from my house, but that’s ten miles closer to the coast.  However, I get TV from Comcast, my local cable TV provider.  As I’ve watched the HD feed today, it’s been spotty.  Good for a while, unwatchable for a while.  The analog feed, which we also get on a different channel, has been spot on the whole time.

From this, it would appear that Comcast is getting its feed out of the air, and thus has all the same sorts of weather effects that I would have if I bothered to put my own antenna on the roof.  Next year, when the next hurricane is bearing down on the coast, and digital TV is the only TV around, it’s an interesting question whether I’ll get something useful on my TV during a disaster.  Dear Comcast, Engineering Department: please get a hard line between you and each of the local major TV stations.  Better yet, get two of them, each, and make sure they don’t share any telephone poles.

[Sidebar: In my old house, I used DirecTV plus a terrestrial antenna for HD locals, run through a DirecTV-branded HD TiVo.  Now, I’m getting everything from Comcast, over telephone poles, into a (series 3) TiVo-HD.  In any meaningful disaster, the telephone poles are likely to go down, taking out my TV source material. I get power and telephone from the same poles, so to some extent, they make a single point of failure, and thus no meaningful benefit from putting up my own antenna.

Once the storm gets closer, I’ll be moving the UPS from my computer to our, umm, shelter-in-place location.  I don’t expect I’d want to waste precious UPS battery power running my power-hungry television set.  Instead, I’ve got an AM/FM portable radio that runs on two AA’s.  Hopefully, the amount of useful information on the radio will be better than the man-on-the-street TV newscasters, interviewing fools standing along the ocean, watching the pretty waves breaking.  Hint: you can’t “ride through” a storm when the water is ten feet over your head.]