Is it time for a U.S. agency dedicated to robotics?

We’ve got cars without drivers out there. Companies are testing drone delivery. Specialized robots are being used inside and outside factories. Ethical, societal and legal concerns surrounding automation and robotics abound. So a new Brookings Institute report says it’s time for a federal commission for robotics.

Ryan Calo, assistant professor at the University of the Washington School of Law and formerly at the Center for the Internet and Society, wrote the report. He believes robotics will bring about such a profound change that a new government agency is necessary.

Technology has repeatedly played a meaningful part in the formation of new agencies,” Calo writes, referring to the advent of the train and the rise of radio, which gave way to the need for what’s now the FCC and the Department of Transportation. He says he’s not necessarily thinking of a regulatory body, at least initially. He’s talking about an agency that would have expertise and would advise on “the novel human experiences” the new technologies will bring about.

The alternative, I fear, is that we will continue to address robotics policy questions piecemeal, perhaps indefinitely, with increasingly poor outcomes and slow accrual of knowledge,” Calo writes.

That’s what’s happening in the United States so far, at least with driverless vehicles. California just licensed some cars being tested by Google and others, but it’s only among a handful of states that have established rules for automated vehicles. As the Associated Press reports, federal regulations seem years away. The feds are also grappling with what to do about commercial drones, which companies such as Google and Amazon are testing.

Calo mentions Toyota vehicles’ unexpected acceleration problem several years ago, and how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had to turn to NASA when it was trying to pinpoint the problem. He writes: “Under extraordinary circumstances, the best and brightest at NASA can take a break from repairing space stations or building Mars robots to take a look at the occasional Toyota. But this is not a sustainable strategy in the long run. 

“Robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with physical embodiment—robots are software that can touch you. For better or for worse, we have been very tolerant of the harms that come from interconnectivity and disruptive innovation—including privacy, security, and hate speech. We will have to strike a new balance when bones are on the line in addition to bits,” the report says.


Artist rendering of self-driving Google car courtesy of Google


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  • steve hammill

    Government telling entrepreneurs how to do something correctly?

    Good gawd! The ObamaCare site should say it all.

    Yes, some day there will be a need for regulations and sometimes waivers permitting technologies.

    But government meddling will only serve to crush innovation and the innovators will go elsewhere to innovate.

  • Elf Odin

    Wasn’t “U.S. Robotics” already used?