Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Robotics and Legal Responsibility

With robotic devices increasingly prevalent in 'real life', and the prospect of ever more autonomous robots, there is a need for legislation to be updated to reflect the changing conditions. An article I read on Wired a few days ago reminded of an EU project that started last year: RoboLaw, which has the aim of exploring how emerging robotics technologies influence and are affected by the law (see also this, which I've just come across). This issue is brought into sharper focus in the case of something going wrong, where the question of responsibility arises. For instance, there's been a lot going around in recent months on the autonomous car efforts of Google and others. If there were to be a crash, who would take the blame? Would it be the manufacturer in the obvious absence of driver error, or perhaps those responsible for road/signalling maintenance? Indeed, would the technically possible autonomy be scaled back to maintain direct human oversight in order to mitigate the potential legal minefield? While there have been some legislative attempts to address this, there clearly is a way to go.

Individual researchers actually working on the supporting technologies have increasingly considered the implications, and potential implications, of their own field of research, typically focusing on the ethics involved in the (proposed) applications. Indeed, a couple of years ago now, I wrote something on the consequences of my ongoing work on memory in the context of human-robot interaction, though my effort was more directed at the possible legal implications of memory system technologies than ethics. The paper considered the implications of new computational means of providing the function of memory (specifically the use of sub-symbolic networks). It specifically proposed that as a consequence of the details of the technologies potentially used, current privacy legislation may not be suitable to account for new generations of autonomous social robots.

In my view, this is a small example of a wider need to consider the actual technologies in (proposed) use when considering legislative requirements - hence a need for the scientific/engineering community to engage with the legislative process (and therefore vice versa). However, in order for this to be effected, I feel that it would be beneficial to have common perspective or approach on the part of the researchers, which even if not unified is at least coherent. With one of the main deliverables of the project intended to be a white paper recommending regulatory guidelines to European legislators, this project has the potential to help provide this.