Why does the United States needs a new federal commission focused solely on understanding our robot future? The real question is, why don't we?
Ryan Calo is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, and in a new paper out from Brookings he makes the case that a new Federal Robotics Commission would help make sense of the various technology applications that separate human agency from execution. (Of course, robots and robotics are not perfectly overlapping fields, but a federal robot agency sounds so much cooler as to justify the fuzzy rhetoric.) Calo opens with a recent example from the automobile agency:
The U.S. Department of Transportation had a problem: Toyota customers were alleging that their vehicle had accelerated unexpectedly, causing death or injury. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found some mechanical problems that may have accounted for the accidents — specifically, a design flaw that enabled accelerator pedals to become trapped by floor mats — but other experts suspected a software issue was to blame. Like most contemporary vehicles, Toyotas rely on computers to control many elements of the car. Congress was worried enough at the prospect of glitches in millions of vehicles that it directed the DOT to look for electronic causes.
NHTSA lacked the expertise to disentangle the complex set of interactions between software and hardware "under the hood." The agency struggled over what to do until it hit upon an idea: let's ask NASA.
But such ad hoc cross-agency consultancy isn't a long-term fix, Calo points out. For one thing, the space agency has spaceships to attend to. Writes Calo, "The best and brightest at NASA can take a break from repairing space stations or building Mars robots to take a look at the occasional Toyota," but it's not a sustainable solution for the federal government contending with a future that is increasingly technologically confusing.
In fact, the glitchy Toyota gas pedals are an odd way to lead the paper, as they're one of the more straightforward examples of what's happening in the robotics space. There are also autonomous cars, drones, robotic surgery, high-frequency trading -- in short, all sorts of examples across fields and industries of robotics changing how things are done. But what Calo and others argue is that those changes aren't merely variations on existing practices but entirely new ones, and ones in which, importantly, outcomes are difficult to predict. An algorithm, Calo points out, organizes a warehouse differently than a human would, even if it's programmed by a human in the first place.
That's a sort of emergent behavior, and it raises all sorts of legal, ethical and technological questions that take a type of expertise and holistic thinking to understand and support. Bitcoin enthusiasts, for example, are musing about a future in which not only can autonomous taxis "own" money but, without human decision-making, can also go about acquiring additions to their fleets. Is the Treasury Department set up to make sense of that? Is the Department of Transportation?
Of course, there are considerable downsides to starting a new federal agency, not the least of which is startup costs -- especially when you consider that nearly every Federal Robotics Commission employee is going to want a coffee with the unavoidably awesome new agency logo. And there are those who have argued that at least when it comes to driverless cars, our existing legal structures are perfectly capable of coping with whatever changes they might wreak.
And, too, it's possible that the Treasury or Transportation Department could develop the expertise to handle our robotic eventualities. But the way that Calo seems to be imagining it, they wouldn't have to. The FRC could serve as as sort of floating band of robotics experts available to help out its allied agencies when such questions arise but that is meanwhile developing useful expertise in its chosen field.
No doubt, there's a risk of technological determinism here; when you're an agency charged with focusing on robots, everything can look like a problem for robots to solve. But Calo makes a compelling case for the idea that agencies rooted in single solutions can evolve into ones that capture major themes of modern American life. The Federal Radio Commission grew out of a desire to promote and protect the futuristic industry of its time, and that begat today's Federal Communications Commission. Or take the newish Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its organizational starting point of how real-live people engage with consumer financial products that seems to be expanding into an experiential understanding of citizen-centered enforcement.
We might, in other words, start with a Federal Robotics Commission in 2015 and by 2030 end up, usefully, with a United States Department of Emergence.
You can read -- or have your robot assistant read you -- Calo's paper here.