Robotics and the New Cyberlaw

Cyberlaw is the study of the intersection between law and the Internet.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the defining questions of cyberlaw grew out of the Internet’s unique characteristics.  For instance: an insensitivity to distance led some courts to rethink the nature of jurisdiction.  A tendency, perhaps hardwired, among individuals and institutions to think of “cyberspace” as an actual place generated a box of puzzles around the nature of property, privacy, and speech.

We are now well in to the cyberlaw project.  Certain questions have seen a kind of resolution.  Mark Lemley collected a few examples—jurisdiction, free speech, the dormant commerce clause—back in 2003.  Several debates continue, but most deep participants are at least familiar with the basic positions and arguments.  In privacy, for example, a conversation that began around an individual’s control over their own information has evolved into a conversation about the control information affords over individuals to whoever holds it.  In short, the twenty or so years legal and other academics have spent studying the Internet have paid the dividends of structure and clarity that one would hope.

The problem is that technology has not stood still in the meantime.  The very same institutions that developed the Internet, from the military to household-name Internet companies like Google and Amazon, have initiated a significant shift toward a new transformative technology: robotics.  The word “significant” is actually pretty conservative: these institutions are investing, collectively, hundreds of billions of dollars in robotics and artificial intelligence.  People like the Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine—arguably the publication of record for the digital revolution—are quitting to found robotics companies.  Dozens of states now have robot-specific laws.

What do we as academics and jurists make of this shift?  It seems to me, at least, that robotics has a distinct set of essential qualities than the Internet and, therefore, will raise a novel questions of law and policy.  If anything, I see robotics as departing even more abruptly from the Internet than did the Internet from personal computers and telephony.  In a new draft article, I explore in detail how I think cyberlaw (and law in general) will change with the ascendance of robotics as a commercial, social, and cultural force.  I am particularly interested in whether cyberlaw—with its peculiar brand of interdisciplinary pragmatism—remains the proper intellectual house for the study of this new transformative technology.

I follow robotics pretty closely but I don’t purport to have all the answers.  Perhaps I have overstated the importance or robotics, misdiagnosed its likely impact, or otherwise selected an unwise path forward.   I hope you read the paper and let me know.

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2 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Given the notion of “cyberlaw” is itself contested, is the important question (a) how robotics will change “cyberlaw” or (b) the specific issues that robotics presents? I would tend to think the latter, given that I’m skeptical that “cyberlaw” is a useful way to think of Internet-law related issues.

    • Ryan Calo says:

      Orin, this is a very fair question—a version of which James Grimmelman posed over Twitter. I don’t know what the answer is but I’ll tell you my thinking.

      The bulk of the paper, I’d say, is devoted to the specific issues I think robotics presents. I talk about what characterizes robotics in Part II and how law may change systematically in response in Part III.

      The reason I dwell on the cyberlaw frame is that cyberlaw (as a scholarly conversation, mind you, not a body of decisions) developed a really helpful framework for looking at technology. I mention your contribution, for instance, regarding the role of perspective. What I find especially useful about cyberlaw is its commitment to approach technology through a pragmatic, interdisciplinary lens.

      I also can’t help but observe that its the cyberlaw crowd (with some torts folks) getting most excited about robotics, and that the institutions behind the rapid development of robotics are the very same as those behind the Internet. I realize that doesn’t, as an analytic matter, determine whether that means cyber (or Internet) law should remain in the picture. But the analogies between the two are pretty strong.

      Thanks again. I’d of course welcome further thoughts.