The first ever We Robot conference (on legal and policy issues relating to robotics) has been scheduled for April of next year. We spend a lot of time talking about the technical aspects of robotics around here, and a conference about legal and policy stuff may sound a little bit ho-hum. But, it's actually a Really Big Deal.
The reason that it's a Really Big Deal is that getting robots integrated into our daily lives involves all kinds of issues of safety, security, privacy, and ethics, and there needs to be some kind of legal framework in place before companies (and investors) will feel comfortable innovating (and funding innovation) in areas where robots and humans will be interacting extensively.
The simple fact is that technology has, in many cases, utterly outpaced society, and things like robotic (autonomous) cars are a perfect example. Sebastian Thrun had a great article in the New York Times yesterday about self-driving cars, pointing out the many, many upsides ranging from preventing accidents to saving time and money. And we have the technology. Not only has Google been demonstrating it for hundreds of thousands of miles, but cars you can buy right now with lane detection and adaptive cruise control are nearly capable of driving themselves on the highway. The real issue at this point is not the technology: It's the fact that at some point, one of these cars is going to have some sort of accident, the headlines are going to be all about evil killer robots, and reactionary policies are going to be enacted that could potentially cripple the entire industry.
We can't let that happen, which is why we need conferences like this one. And it goes way beyond autonomous cars, of course. Here's a sampling of the subject matter that will be represented in the academic papers at the conference:
- Effect of robotics on the workplace, e.g. small businesses, hospitals, and other contexts where robots and humans work side-by-side.
- Regulatory and licensing issues raised by robots in the home, the office, in public spaces (e.g. roads), and in specialized environments such as hospitals.
- Design of legal rules that will strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and safety, particularly in the context of autonomous robots.
- Issues of legal or moral responsibility, e.g. relating to autonomous robots or robots capable of exhibiting emergent behavior.
- Issues relating to robotic prosthetics (e.g. access equity issues, liability for actions activated by conscious or unconscious mental commands).
- Relevant differences between virtual and physical robots.
- Relevant differences between nanobots and larger robots.
- Usage of robots in public safety and military contexts.
- Privacy issues relating to data collection by robots, either built for that purpose or incidental to other tasks.
- Intellectual property challenges relating to robotics as a nascent industry, to works or inventions created by robots, or otherwise peculiar to robotics.
- Issues arising from automation of professional tasks such as unauthorized practice of law or medicine.
Submission proposals will be accepted up until January 12, and if they accept your paper, the University of Miami will apparently pay for your trip. Sweet deal. The conference itself will be held in Coral Gables, Florida, on April 21st and 22nd of next year.