Why We Need a Robot Registry


At-a-glance identifiers will tell us who’s operating bots in public

2 min read
Illustration of colored dots with a skull in the middle.
Illustration: Greg Mably

I have a confession to make: A robot haunts my nightmares. For me, Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot is 32.5 kilograms (71.1 pounds) of pure terror. It can climb stairs. It can open doors. Seeing it in a video cannot prepare you for the moment you cross paths on a trade-show floor. Now that companies can buy a Spot robot for US $74,500, you might encounter Spot anywhere.

Spot robots now patrol public parks in Singapore to enforce social distancing during the pandemic. They meet with COVID-19 patients at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital so that doctors can conduct remote consultations. Imagine coming across Spot while walking in the park or returning to your car in a parking garage. Wouldn’t you want to know why this hunk of metal is there and who’s operating it? Or at least whom to call to report a malfunction?

Robots are becoming more prominent in daily life, which is why I think governments need to create national registries of robots. Such a registry would let citizens and law enforcement look up the owner of any roaming robot, as well as learn that robot’s purpose. It’s not a far-fetched idea: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration already has a registry for drones.

Governments could create national databases that require any companies operating robots in public spaces to report the robot make and model, its purpose, and whom to contact if the robot breaks down or causes problems. To allow anyone to use the database, all public robots would have an easily identifiable marker or model number on their bodies. Think of it as a license plate or pet microchip, but for bots.

There are some smaller-scale registries today. San Jose’s Department of Transportation (SJDOT), for example, is working with Kiwibot, a delivery robot manufacturer, to get real-time data from the robots as they roam the city’s streets. The Kiwibots report their location to SJDOT using the open-source Mobility Data Specification, which was originally developed by Los Angeles to track Bird scooters.

Real-time location reporting makes sense for Kiwibots and Spots wandering the streets, but it’s probably overkill for bots confined to cleaning floors or patrolling parking lots. That said, any robots that come in contact with the general public should clearly provide basic credentials and a way to hold their operators accountable. Given that many robots use cameras, people may also be interested in looking up who’s collecting and using that data.

I starting thinking about robot registries after Spot became available in June for anyone to purchase. The idea gained specificity after listening to Andra Keay, founder and managing director at Silicon Valley Robotics, discuss her five rules of ethical robotics at an Arm event in October. I had already been thinking that we needed some way to track robots, but her suggestion to tie robot license plates to a formal registry made me realize that people also need a way to clearly identify individual robots.

Keay pointed out that in addition to sating public curiosity and keeping an eye on robots that could cause harm, a registry could also track robots that have been hacked. For example, robots at risk of being hacked and running amok could be required to report their movements to a database, even if they’re typically restricted to a grocery store or warehouse. While we’re at it, Spot robots should be required to have sirens, because there’s no way I want one of those sneaking up on me.

This article appears in the December 2020 print issue as “Who’s Behind That Robot?”

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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