Ryan Calo Discusses “Robots in American Law”

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on April 4, 2016


Robotic technology is beginning to enter the mainstream. Just a few examples include: Roomba for vacuuming and Nest for comfort controls in the home; in healthcare, microbots are used inside the human body, and Bestic provides eating assistance; underwater robots for exploration and conservation efforts; BigDog, a rough-terrain robot, created for the U.S. military; and, self-driving cars. And with autonomous machines, there is invariably conflict between man and machine, and also between man and man over the robotic machine’s actions.


How are robotics viewed by the U.S. legal system?


The Atlantic recently talked with University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo about how courts have handled a few notable conflicts with robotics. Below are a few excerpts from “A Brief History of Robot Law.”


So far, courts have mostly treated robots as mindless machines and held humans responsible for their actions. What’s changing now, Calo says, is that robots are becoming more capable of acting and thinking for themselves. “What’s exciting about robotics today, in part, is that they’re able to solve problems in ways people wouldn’t, and that’s not something courts have encountered or even imagined,” he says.


Calo and others predict that the most interesting cases to confront the courts will involve robots with “emergent” behavior—that is, robots capable of solving problems and behaving in surprising ways. Such bots could complicate the concept of criminal intent, a crucial determination in criminal cases.


The issue of anticipating what AI [artificial intelligence] can do could also make it tricky to determine liability in civil cases, Calo says.


As artificial intelligence and robotics advance, “foreseeable consequences” may be a moving target. “If we have truly emergent systems, it’s not clear that all the kinds of mischief they get up to are going to be anticipated,” Calo says.


In “Robots in American Law,” a new paper by Professor Calo, a half century of case law involving robots is examined. In the abstract, Professor Calo points out that “Most of the cases involving robots have never found their way into legal scholarship. Yet, taken collectively, these cases reveal much about the assumptions and limitations of our legal system. Robots blur the line between people and instrument, for instance, and faulty notions about robots lead jurists to questionable or contradictory results.”


In “Robots in American Law,” Professor Calo categorizes the case studies into two sets.


The first set highlights the role of robots as the objects of American law. Among other issues, courts have had to decide whether robots represent something “animate” for purposes of import tariffs, whether robots can “perform” as that term is understood in the context of a state tax on performance halls, and whether a salvage team “possesses” a shipwreck it visits with an unmanned submarine.


The second set of case studies focuses on robots as the subjects of judicial imagination. These examples explore the versatile, often pejorative role robots play in judicial reasoning itself. Judges need not be robots in court, for instance, or apply the law robotically. The robotic witness is not to be trusted. And people who commit crimes under the robotic control of another might avoid sanction.


Robots in American Law” shows that themes and questions emerge that illuminate the path of robotics law and test its central claims to date. The article concludes that jurists on the whole possess poor, increasingly outdated views about robots and hence will not be well positioned to address the novel challenges they continue to pose.


Read The Atlantic article, “A Brief History of Robot Law.”

Read Professor Calo’s article, “Robots in American Law.”