Dozens of experts in law, technology and policy gathered at the University of Miami this weekend to think about one thing: robots.
The goal of the annual We Robot conference is to get the makers and the thinkers in the same room to look ahead.
Event founder Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the university, has spent most of his career working on Internet law. He says he's seen technology outpace the law countless times.
"You design stuff to make it work and you don't think a lot about the legal and social consequences," says Froomkin. "So by the time the lawyers get in the room, the standards are already baked and the stuff is already deployed."
In lectures and discussions, attendees are asking questions like: Do robots have rights? How hard could you shove the office robot that rolls over your foot? If a robot is reading your email, is that spying?
And, what laws will we need when drones start flying in the national airspace?
That last question is on the mind of Donna Dulo, one of the presenters this year. Dulo is writing a law book for the American Bar Association about unmanned aviation.
"Basically, we need to look at the safety of these systems. We need to look at the autonomy of the systems, and we need to be proactive with the laws," says Dulo, a senior mathematician and computer scientist with the Department of Defense. "We don't want to wait 10, 15 years, or wait for a couple catastrophic accidents, before we get the law correct."
The Federal Aviation Administration will officially allow commercial use of drones starting next year. The FAA has approved six commercial drone testing sites.
"We're gonna see an exponential explosion of these aircraft in the skies in the near future — where news happens, where there's police incidents, where we're doing firefighting operations," Dulo says. "Facebook wants to put these things in the sky to create a wireless cloud across the globe. Amazon wants to use them to deliver packages."
Dulo is concerned about the many unanswered questions raised by unmanned flying vehicles, including: how to prevent collisions, who bears responsibilities for accidents, and what kind of charges such accidents would bring.
She hopes that discussing these issues now will help as drones become more commonly used. As Dulo says, the drones are coming, whether we like it or not.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Again, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
MICHAEL FROOMKIN: My name is Michael Froomkin. I'm the chair for this year's We Robot 2014.
MCEVERS: This weekend, dozens of experts in law, technology, science and policy hung out to talk about one thing, robots. The University of Miami Law School hosted the third annual We Robot Conference focusing on the legal and policy issues of robotics. Michael Froomkin, a law professor at UM, founded the event. He spent most of his career working in Internet law and has seen technology outpace the law over and over.
FROOMKIN: You design stuff to make it work, and you don't think a lot about the legal and social consequences. So by the time the lawyers get in the room, the standards are already baked and the stuff is already deployed.
MCEVERS: So the goal of the We Robot Conference, to get the makers and the thinkers in the same room, to look ahead. This year, the theme was risks and opportunities. Organizers accepted about 20 papers.
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FROOMKIN: We got a paper that really ask if robots are a feminist issue. Does being spied on by a robot count if no people are involved? One of my favorite asks is if a robot can be a judge. People get very attached to their robots. And this creates all sorts of interesting ethical problems. The inverse of that, of course, is that sometimes robots can seem quite threatening. What are your rights to defend yourself?
MCEVERS: Donna Dulo was one of the presenters at the conference. She's a senior mathematician and computer scientist with the Department of Defense. Her issue, the law of drones.
DONNA DULO: Basically, we need to look at the safety of these systems. We need to look at the autonomy of the systems, and we need to be proactive with the laws. We don't want to wait 10, 15 years or wait for a couple catastrophic accidents before we get the law correct.
MCEVERS: The Federal Aviation Administration will officially allow commercial use of drones next year. The FAA approved six commercial drone testing sites late last year.
DULO: I don't think people realize how many unmanned aircraft are going to be in the national airspace. We're looking at tens of thousands. So we're going to see these things in the skies all over the place, where news happens, where there's police incidents, where we're doing firefighting operations. Facebook wants to put these things in the sky to create a wireless cloud across the globe. Amazon wants to use them to deliver packages. So we're going to see an exponential explosion of these aircraft in the skies in the very near future.
MCEVERS: Dulo says when it comes to the law of drones, most scholars worry about privacy issues. But there's a lot more to consider.
DULO: We have First Amendment issues. We have administrative issues. We have safety issues. We have data security issues. We even have Second Amendment issues.
MCEVERS: Of course, the FAA has lots of laws in place for manned vehicles in the skies, but there's a lot of uncertainty when there's no pilot onboard.
DULO: They don't address the autonomy of unmanned systems. Even though you have a pilot in control, sometimes the pilot may lose control because of some other technical issues. And that'll make the system autonomous. And also, there's organizations that want to have autonomous systems altogether where they literally program in the coordinates for the drones and just let the drones fly off to their target locations. And this is very dangerous.
When you have an aircraft flying around without control, how will we prevent collisions? Do we have collision systems in place? And also, if we do have an accident, who's going to be responsible? Is it the pilot operator? Is it the sensor operator, because in a lot of cases you have more than one person controlling the drone. Is it going to be the organization that's sponsoring the aircraft? Is it going to be the government due to conflicting laws or confusing laws? Or is it going to be the manufacturer?
What if the drone gets out of control and it's actually a software issue not an actual operator issue? Who is going to be responsible? Who's going to be liable? And also, is there going to be criminal culpability as well as civil liability?
MCEVERS: The legal waters are murky and the questions go on. Donna Dulo hopes to address some of them in a law book for the American Bar Association due out this fall. As Dulo says, the drones are coming whether we like it or not. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.