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Time for a Federal Robotics Agency

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In a new report for the Brookings Institution, law and technology expert Ryan Calo points out a serious problem in a case study from the U.S. automotive industry’s recent history. When Toyota customers started claiming around 2009 that their vehicles were accelerating without provocation, making it appear as if there was a problem with their cars’ computers, no one knew how to resolve the issue.

It was unclear whether there was a problem with the cars’ computers until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided to pose the question to engineers at NASA, an agency that knows quite a bit about intricate software challenges. But NASA engineers looked under the hood and found no computer glitches to account for the claims.

That’s also a big problem, because we can’t have car companies wasting money and NASA’s time looking into matters that have nothing to do with NASA specialists’ areas of expertise — they’re kind of busy trying to figure out how the universe was created and if we can live on other planets. Calo’s solution? The U.S. needs a federal robotics commission.

Calo is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a former research director at the Center for Internet and Society. He points out in his Brookings report that there are many issues with how the U.S. government deals with technological problems, as well as with the methods it uses to decide who is the authority on how we should think about new technologies as they emerge.

As drones, driverless cars, robotic surgeons and algorithms that can buy and trade in the stock market become part of the daily conversation, there needs to be an understanding of how the law and the public will deal with these imminent realities. There isn’t much chance we’ll start throwing robots in jail, so who is at fault when a robot fails to save a life during surgery? Who is at fault when a driverless car makes the wrong choice when put in a position to hit a shopping cart or a stroller? These are questions Calo recognizes as important and in need of answers, but we also need to make sure the right people are around to help us get to the right answers.

“There are significant challenges in getting technologists into federal government,” Calo told Truthdig. He argues that an agency that could gather the foremost experts on robotics and technology related to robotics, much like NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have done in their fields, could change the way the United States deals with issues and concepts related to future robotic endeavors.

“Right now, we mostly need to just get out of the way of robotics and make sure the conditions are right and there’s enough research. We really should be fostering this technology and not setting rules around it at present,” Calo said. “The law has already begun to address robotics in specific forms, and not always so wisely.”

He knows that some people would rather the government stay away from these technologies entirely, but “the law is eventually going to get involved, whether it’s for intellectual property, licensing … or privacy; the law is not going to entirely leave robotics alone, nor would it leave any human activity alone. The question is: ‘What is the best way to deploy this policy?’ ”

Calo imagines this federal robotics commission as the great adviser, organizer and promoter of our robotic interests. He doesn’t think we need some giant bureaucratic regulator that says what everyone can and can’t do and pursues rule breakers; rather, we need an agency that’s there when we have questions and that pools resources to further advancement. At times when it is clear there needs to be immediate action on creating laws for how a new technology is handled, like commercial drones, the government too often makes broad decisions without much expert insight. If the government had one major agency, as opposed to several small and fractured committees, to go to for advice and guidance, then the right decision could be made.

“If Seattle had had some federal knowledge around the visceral reactions people have to drones, instead of just deploying them and having everyone physically protesting and then the mayor shutting the program down, it’d be a different picture here,” Calo said. Instead of assuming a drone program would go off without a hitch, the city could have consulted this agency to find out the best way to go about such a plan.

In his Brookings report, Calo mentions robots created for war that were so anthropomorphized by the soldiers who worked with them that they put their lives in danger to protect the robots. If there was an agency that could be consulted by military contractors on the social implications of certain kinds of robots entering the battlefield, they could avoid deploying the kind that might introduce such a dire predicament.Not only could the agency advise companies and lawmakers on their decisions in relation to robots, but it could help foster growth in robotics, Calo argues. “It could coordinate private and public investment in robotics the way the European Commission has done, to the tune of several billion euros in Europe,” he said. Instead of the situation in the United States, where the government has dedicated only $70 million to robotics research in the National Robotics Initiative, an agency like the one Calo envisions could pool together private and public investments to make sure we’re staying ahead of the curve.

Europe and Japan are strides ahead of us in investing in robotics. Manufacturing has already suffered in the United States, but not investing in robots could make it worse. “Imagine if we’re trying to outproduce another country that has heavily invested in robotics in order to ensure that each of its workers is empowered to produce more? We’ll never compete,” Calo said.

When the Internet was in its infancy, legislators established that online content falls within the purview of free speech and enacted specific protective guidelines. Now overregulation and corporatization are looming threats in the online domain. Calo points out that overregulation stifles innovation, so there needs to be a delicate touch when creating laws and standards.

As for one of the typical worries associated with government agencies — the idea that they are subject to “capture” — Calo is less concerned than you may expect. Capture happens when corporate interests colonize the interests of a government branch. He believes an agency focused on advising is unlikely to fall into the hands of corporate interests, because it will have no sweeping powers of its own. Not many people are worried about NASA experiencing capture, he noted, adding that “we can’t just not do things because corporate interests might be involved.”

When politicians refer to the Internet as a “series of tubes,” it’s important to realize that some of them are not the right people to be deciding the future of technology. That being said, an agency that can advise those lawmakers to make the right decisions and promote growth could be what the government needs. In a country where most people don’t understand how their phone works anymore, it’s important to leave the big decisions to the experts.

Thor Benson
Thor Benson is a traveling writer, currently located in Los Angeles. Aside from Truthdig, he has been a contributor to Slate, Vice, Fast Company and many others. You can follow him at…
Thor Benson

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