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The Need for a New Agency to Regulate Robots

Emerging technologies often generate a great debate over the efficacy of new federal regulations. In the past, the government has had to adapt to new technologies like the railroad or the radio. Typically lawmakers work out a compromise that protects safety and the rule of law. As robotics technology has steadily advanced, the conversation about government oversight has started to grow louder. In a recent paper, Ryan Calo explores the idea of a new federal agency that explicitly deals with robots

The Legal Status Quo of Robots

A current weakness in the robotics regulatory regime is the lack of available expert knowledge. Several lawmaking bodies have already made mistakes regarding new robotics laws. For example, the Nevada legislature defined an “autonomous vehicle” as any replacement of artificial intelligence for a human operator. Outside commenters argued this definition is too broad because it categorizes old technologies like anti-lock brake systems as autonomous. The FAA’s new drone policy also did not include a good definition of the new automated technology, which made the regulations confusing and difficult to navigate. A new federal agency could gather together subject matter experts to provide best practices to other government agencies and develop optimal federal policies.

The Federal Robotics Commission

A Federal Robotics Commission (FRC), as Calo pitches, would be a relatively small interdisciplinary agency that consists of engineers, computer scientists, law, and policy experts. Calo outlines a few goals and responsibilities in his paper:

  • Research Funding: the FRC would first and foremost be responsible for distributing federal funds for robotics research. This could help solve many of the technical challenges that exist in the field.
  • Advise: Counseling local, state, federal lawmakers, and other government agencies would be another fundamental responsibility of the FRC given the current lack of expertise and knowledge about the new industry.
  • Encourage Discourse: The FRC would also bring domestic and international organizations, academics, and NGOs to discuss robotic and artificial intelligence.

Opposition

Much of the resistance against the Federal Robotics Commission is familiar. Many people who hear about the idea simply ask if another federal agency is worth it. The efficiency of such a body is immediately called into question. Others argue the sector is in its infancy and new government regulations could hinder further innovation. These concerns have merit but a new agency could also support a developing robotics industry by advising lawmakers on how to develop pro-growth laws.

The field of robotics is advancing very quickly. In the future, robots will be omnipresent and integrated into our daily lives. The time for thinking critically about how robots will affect law and policies is now. Predicting the future of how technology and policy will evolve is difficult. But, investing in expertise and creating a strong but flexible federal regulatory body is an important step to safely and efficiently integrate robots into human society.

Matt Mariano contributed to this post.

Author

J

Joshua Bleiberg

Ph.D. student - Vanderbilt University

Former Research Analyst - The Brookings Institution

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