Do We Need New Laws to Govern the Age of Robots?

December 5, 2014 | 00:59
Do We Need New Laws to Govern the Age of Robots?
Do We Need New Laws to Govern the Age of Robots?
Transformative technologies raise new questions for age-old institutions like the legal system. As robots move out of the confines of factories and into our homes and public places, do we need to revisit our laws?

With the rise of robotics we are presented with a entirely new class of technology. Robots combine the torrent of data coursing through our information networks with the ability to perform actions in the physical world, they're set to become the arms and legs of the Internet. As the development of self-learning systems progresses, robots increasingly display emergent behavior: performing tasks that weren't programmed into the machine in the design phase. And since robots are build to mimic human behavior, not necessarily in their outward appearance but in that they respond and communicate, people have a tendency to attach social value to them.

Ryan Calo, assistant professor of Law at the University of Washington, identifies these particular characteristics of robotic systems in his paper Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw and poses the question whether the legal system is sufficiently prepared to deal with the next iteration of science fiction becoming real.

To get a handle on the question, Calo examines the previous time institutions had to scramble to catch up with technological reality: the emergence of the internet.

The internet does not recognize borders, at least, that was the catchphrase during the early days of the commercial internet. The law, on the contrary, attributes much weight to borders as every jurisdiction has its own legal code. This led to a host of court cases treading on unfamiliar ground. Calo recalls the case Yahoo! Inc. v. La Ligue Contre Racisme et L’antisemitisme. The League sued Yahoo! for selling nazi paraphernalia in France where it is forbidden and the question for the courts was whether a company operating in America – where such behavior is protected under the First Amendment – could be forced to comply with French law.

These and many other legal questions that arose from the popularization of the internet had to be sorted out case by case, academic paper by academic paper. But after some twenty years this “led more or less directly to a specific legal discourse we know collectively by the name cyberlaw. […] Even unsettled questions begin to take on a more mature and formal structure,” Calo writes.

Robotics, the next challenge
If and when robotics makes it long awaited entry into our daily lives, it will be the next technology giving rise to legal disputes that previously had not existed. The three characteristics Calo identified - embodiment, emergence and social meaning – will lie at the heart of these novel legal cases.

Take emergence for instance. To have a self-learning robot perform tasks in ways that were not intended or predicted is the very goal of the design. If the owner of a self-learning robot would send it out on an errand and it would hurt someone in the process, who's to blame? Calo writes: “Criminal law would look to the state of mind of the defendant: did he intend, know, or at least have reason to know his robot would hurt the victim or break the law? Tort law would look to foreseeability: should the defendant have appreciated the risk of harm and its magnitude, or “fairly foreseen” the activity as a part of the robot’s assignment? This category of hypothetical presents, at base, the prospect of a victim who suffers a non-natural harm but no perpetrator to whom the law can attribute this harm.”

Does the legal system need to adapt?
Calo concludes the proliferation of robots would call for the creation of a dedicated field within the legal system just as cyberlaw became a distinct discipline. But robotlaw does not have to start from scratch. In the two decades it took the carve out cyberlaw much has been learned about adapting the legal system to an emerging technology.

Image: Machinarium. Source:
Loading comments...
related items