Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission

Coming soon to a federal commission near you?

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This month, on the heels of its policy paper on our cyborg future, Brookings Institution has put forth a new publication on robotics—and this time, it’s explaining why we need a new federal commission to deal with them.

The idea for a federal robotics commission came out of workshop of a paper that author Ryan Calo (who will, in the interest of full disclosure, be a participant in a Future Tense event this October) was presenting at Fordham Law School. Following the discussion, Calo decided to treat the idea of a new commission to deal with robotics and its importance as a standalone subject.

In a phone interview, Calo explained that he envisions a bipartisan, independent, and, at least initially, small agency, with two commissioners from each party, structured much like the Federal Trade Commission. The commission, he specifies in the report, would be composed primarily of “a handful of engineers and others with backgrounds in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, and human-computer interaction, right alongside experts in law and policy.”

Calo’s commission would not be a pre-emptive, regulatory one. Rather, it would act in an advisory capacity, writing reports and serving as a resource for states with questions on, for example, how to regulate driverless cars. (There is already reason to believe that they will, in the not too distant future, need someone to whom to turn: As Calo notes in the paper’s introduction, the Department of Transportation has already had to turn to NASA to deal with a case of inexplicably accelerating Toyotas.)

But the case for a commission isn’t only in what could happen were we to create one—it’s also what will happen if we fail to do so. Calo worries that, without such a commission, and without thinking about robotics consistently and centrally, “People will strike the wrong balance between innovation and safety,” meaning that we won’t allow robotic advancements to be made out of fear. Alternatively, we might allow them to happen, but they’ll come with missteps, poorly thought-out rules, and lack of regulations.

What’s more, if we don’t establish such a commission, other countries will. In fact, they already are. Calo points to the central planning of Japan, and the consistent (albeit permissive) attitude toward drones in Australia and Canada, and the RoboLaw project developed by the EU (for which Calo was an advisor). Without dedicated and sustained policy attention paid specifically to robotics, robotics will go forward to the future—but with it, we have a better chance of leading them there.