Why the US Government Needs a Federal Robotics Commission

Another agency? Yeah. Another agency.

Sep 18 2014, 5:20pm

Image: Flickr/Jeff

Robots are everywhere and they're not going away: They're taking our jobs, they're flying in our skiesthey're making our stock market trades, and soon enough they'll be driving our cars. It is, finally, time for the US government to create a Federal Robotics Commission.

In some sense, it's long overdue: Look at what the mess that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration went through with Toyota's mysteriously self-accelerating cars. Look at how drones have made one of the government's most successful agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration, look completely incompetent. Then think about what's going to happen when a driverless car inevitably kills someone. Think the Uber/taxi cab fight happening all around the world is a mess right now? What happens when those Ubers are completely driverless?

So far, agencies have tried to regulate robots to the best of their abilities—but that's tough when, often, they don't have scientists on staff who can actually understand what they're regulating. You've also got different agencies trying to regulate similar technologies. What is a driverless car if not a drone on the ground?

Ryan Calo, a University of Washington School of Law professor specializing in cyber and robotic law who regularly testifies to Congress on these issues, just released a paper suggesting that it's finally time to create a "Federal Robotics Commission" to help solve some of these issues—and to help the FCC and FAA and FTC and SEC and any number of three-letter organizations figure out what the hell they're doing (the UK could do with a similar group, by the way).

When a driverless car crashes, it's going to be for a reason humans won't, and that's going to drive people nuts. Image: Brookings

Yeah, the federal government at this point is a huge, messy bureaucracy, and adding another agency probably isn't near the top of the list for a lot of Americans. But, really, how many engineers and law experts can each agency really afford to hire? The plan would be to let the FRC work with other agencies to enact robotics regulations that are in line with what has been done in the past.

"The institution I have in mind would not 'regulate' robotics in the sense of fashioning rules regarding their use, at least not in any initial incarnation," Calo wrote in the paper, published by Brookings. Instead, the agency would employ a bunch of scientists and law experts who could provide guidance to those three-letter agencies and could assist the courts when, inevitably, a robot hurts someone.

"Robots have become physical, instead of just manipulating information, and even when it's just information, you have a promiscuity of data that's flying everywhere," Calo told me. "When you have an ecosystem like that, and when you have robots that can actually injure or kill someone, that's new. That's different. The stakes are different."


So, a Federal Robotics Commission. The FRC is something that Calo floated a few months ago, but this is the first time he's formalized the idea, and a lot of his thinking makes sense: There's no real need for all of these different agencies to have artificial intelligence experts, not when there could be one agency that could be called on when these problems arise.

Right now, we're creating what Calo calls a "patchwork" of regulations that is "hopelessly piecemeal."

"Agencies, courts, and others are not in conversation with one another. Even the same government entities fail to draw links across similar technologies; drones come up little in discussion of driverless cars despite presenting similar issues of safety, privacy, and psychological unease," he wrote.

He's right. The problem, as it so often is with Washington, is getting someone to do anything about it. Though Calo hasn't presented a detailed plan to anyone in the White House or in Congress, he's had preliminary talks with some politicians about the idea in the past.

"They usually say, 'Well, it's interesting, and you're right, but get in line. We've got a lot of hard problems we're dealing with,'" he told me. Pretty soon, some of those hard problems are, without a doubt, going to be directly related to robots.