Tagged: Robotics


Controlling Ghosts

According to a story in The Economist that Deven just flagged, shippers are experimenting with the use of “ghost” vessels without crews to move cargo.  Reasons include greater safety and lower costs, in part because crews make errors and good crews are expensive.  The article has a short section on “rules of the sea” and offers the view of one engineer that there shouldn’t be any legal problems where humans control the vessels from shore.

As it happens, I discuss a version of this issue in Robotics and the New Cyberlaw (at *131):

Craig Allen, a maritime law scholar, recently considers whether unmanned submarines with autonomous capabilities qualify for the full panoply of writes generally afforded vessels in international waters.  International law [e.g., UNCLOS VII, Art. 94(1)] premises these rights on the ability of a flag state to retain, again, “effective control” over the behavior of the vessel and crew.  This has been taken to mean that there are one or more people in charge of the vessel who are beholden to the flag nation in the right ways. The question of whether autonomous systems are beholden to the United States is not (merely) academic: A nation such as China has a strategic incentive to disqualify underwater American military equipment that patrols its sea shelf, such that international bodies may have to confront the question sooner rather than later.

I suspect that remote piloting of vessels will only be the first step—just as so-called “platooning,” where a professional controls multiple vehicles following closely behind, is likely to precede broader deployment of driverless cars.  I wonder whether even the initial deployment will not have some level of autonomy that kicks in where, for instance, contact with the ship is severed.  Certain classes of military drones return to base if they lose contact with the pilot.  Moreover, there are already smaller research vessels that navigate the “high seas,” where these obligations pertain, and collect or relay data without human intervention.  In any event, this issue of effective control—whether in tort, criminal, or apparently maritime law—is one of the ways robotics will pose challenges for law and institutions in the near term.


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.


Third Annual Robotics and Law Conference “We Robot”

hdr-we-robot-2014-1Michael Froomkin, Ian Kerr, and I, along with a wonderful program committee of law scholars and roboticists, have for three years now put on a conference around law, policy, and robotics.  “We Robot” returns to the University of Miami School of Law from Stanford Law School this year and boasts an extraordinary roster of authors, commentators, and participants.  Folks like Jack Balkin, Ann Bartow, Kenneth Anderson, Woodrow Hartzog, Mary Anne Franks, Margot Kaminski, Kate Darling, and David Post, among many others.  Not to mention a demo from a roboticist at the University of Washington whose lab built the surgical robot for the movie Ender’s Game.

I’ve discovered that academics in other disciplines habitually list the acceptance rate of papers.  We Robot III accepted only twenty-five percent of the papers under submission, which compares favorably with the strongest and longest-running conferences in computer science, electrical engineering, and human-computer interaction.  Indeed, judging by the abstracts at least, the papers this year are very exciting, taking on difficult and timely issues from a range of perspectives.

On behalf of our community I invite you to register for and attend We Robot, April 4-5, 2014, in Coral Cables, Florida.  I also hope those who enjoyed We Robot I and II will chime in below, if inclined!  Thank you,

The We Robot III Planning Committee


Robots Take Over University of Washington School of Law

I recently returned from a two-day conference at Stanford Law School on robotics and the law to find that robots had, in my absence, taken over my own law school.  Setting aside my thirty-student (15 law, 15 engineering) robotics and the law seminar, my colleague Lea Vaughn is using a telepresence company as the quarter-long case study in her employment law class.  Bill Covington’s tech policy clinic has a dozen students working on driverless car and drone legislation.  Our entrepreneurial law clinic is helping a robotics start up think about product liability.  And our law review is hosting a symposium on law and artificial intelligence in March 2014 (including a contribution by Concurring Opinions’ own Frank Pasquale and Danielle Citron).  It is increasingly clear to me that I will have to buy this t-shirt.


Robotics And The Law Conference At Stanford Law School

In a few weeks (April 8 and 9), the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and Rock Center for Corporate Governance will be holding a robotics and the law conference at Stanford Law School.  The conference follows up on the inaugural We Robot 2012 at the University of Miami School of Law.  This year’s conference focuses more specifically on the immediate commercial prospects of robotics.  Participants include Mark Lemley, Michael Froomkin, Ian Kerr, Kenneth Anderson, Leila Takayama (Willow Garage), Elizabeth Grossman (Microsoft), Dan Siciliano, and many other established and emerging scholars and practitioners.  We will discuss product liability, privacy, and much more.  The event is free and open to the public.  Details— including the draft agenda and how to RSVP—can be found on the conference website.  Outside sponsors include Microsoft, Ropes & Gray LLP, and AUVSI.  Hope to see you there!


“The Future of Drones in America” Hearing

I got the chance to testify at a hearing of the full Senate Judiciary Committee about the domestic use of drones yesterday. The New York Times has this coverage and, for aficionados of torts, I talk about intrusion upon seclusion with Senator Dick Durbin in this clip from NBC News. Should you get a chance to watch the hearing in full, Senator Al Franken’s thoughts at the end were particularly vivid. My written and oral comments were similar to those outlined in my previous post: privacy law places few limits on the use of drones for surveillance, but we should be very careful in crafting any drone-specific legislative response.  It happens that, about when I was testifying, my students were taking a final where one of the questions involved a drone filming a private party.  I feel they had fair notice that this might be on the exam.


Driverless Cars May Avoid Accidents, But Not Headlines

As Deven Desai points out yesterday, driverless cars could bring a variety of benefits.  For instance: driverless cars may be much safer than human drivers.  Human error accounts for an enormous percentage of driving fatalities, which number in the tens of thousands. In a “perfect,” post-driver world, the circle of fatalities caused by vehicles would simply shrink.  The resulting diagram would look something like this: