The Robot Era – A Discussion with Professor Ryan Calo

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on July 22, 2013


Robotics could be as transformative as the Internet, Professor Ryan Calo told TAP in a recent interview. Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, sat down with TAP to talk about his expertise in cyberlaw and robotics. Specifically, Calo discusses how robotics will affect technology policy differently than other innovations, along with what he sees as the future of robotics and artificial intelligence.

TAP: What brought you to the University of Washington?

RYAN CALO: I signed up to be a fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society (CIS) with the hope of eventually entering the teaching market. I loved CIS so much that I stayed on as a research director for an additional two years. I’m still an affiliate scholar. But when the opportunity arose to become a law professor at the University of Washington, I could not pass it up. Two things drew me to UW. The first was a sense of excitement and accomplishment among the law faculty. There is a lot of positive energy and momentum here that is wonderful to feel a part of. The second was the greater UW environment. We have some of the best departments in the country and share a sense that interdisciplinary study is not only important, but crucial to solving the complex problems of our age.

TAP: What was it that first made you interested in robotics?

CALO: As you can see from my picture, I have been interested in robots since about the first grade. Today my academic focus stems from a strongly held belief that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will prove as transformative as the Internet. I agree with Bill Gates that we are in the early days of personal robotics. But even short of a “robot in every home,” robotics and AI are reshaping society. We as a legal academic community need to be ready to provide context, analysis and solutions.

TAP: How will robotics affect tech policy differently than other innovations?

CALO: I see at least three ways in which robotics and AI may prove “exceptional.” The first is that robots have a social meaning that other tools do not. What do we make of reports, for instance, that soldiers have risked their own lives to rescue a military robot in the line of fire? The second involves emergent behavior, the way robotics and AI is increasingly unforeseeable by design. Emergent behavior refers to outcomes that are useful but not envisioned by the programmer in advance—as when a computer program solves a puzzle in surprising way. The third way that at least “open” robots are different is that they combine for the first time an innovative third party ecosystem with the capacity to do physical harm. By “open,” I mean that the robot is a platform not designed for a particular purpose and that admits of third party innovations. For a more detailed case for robot exceptionalism, watch for my Wired Magazine op-ed and eventual law review essay.

TAP: You have written that robots fit poorly with previous laws in several ways. What will be the impact on product liability?

CALO: I do not think Facebook would run a social network, or Microsoft an operating system, if those companies could be sued for everything people did on the platform. They largely cannot be. As I explain in a 2011 article, however, such “open” platforms only avoid liability for what users do because the direct consequences are not physical. No law (e.g., Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) or doctrine (e.g., economic loss) operates to limit the liability of the manufacturer of an open robot capable of physically acting on the world. The upshot may be that unless Congress acts to immunize manufacturers of robots for what users do with them, this new technology will not be accompanied by the kind of innovation we have seen in the context of PCs, the Internet, or smartphones. I hope we get this issue right; my friends selling third-party software for robots at Robot App Store are betting on it.

TAP: What role do you think robots will play in society ten years from now?

CALO: The precise future of robotics is anyone’s guess. I am reasonably confident we will see far greater domestic use of drones for agriculture and law enforcement. I can see a consumer-ready driverless car within the decade. But really, the robots are already here. Chances are if you purchased something from recently, robots not only helped manufacture the item, but retrieved it from the warehouse. The real sea change will occur when someone creates an affordable, general purpose robot for the home. Such a robot only needs to pass the “neighbor test.” When your neighbor sees you accepting a large package, you have to be ready with one useful thing your new robot can do. After that, however, and assuming we resolve the product liability issues, the possibilities for a robot at home or at the office are endless.

TAP: You have also spent time working on privacy law, specifically on the Consumer Privacy Project. What threats to consumer privacy are most concerning to you?

CALO: Right now I’m working on a paper that concerns the law and ethics of using superior information about consumers to their disadvantage. I worry that we are moving from the practice of “targeting,” in the sense of matching people with their interests, to a world in which consumers are systematically “nudged” away from self-interest (and toward firm profit) based on highly individualized habits and flaws. I am of course aware that scholars and journalists periodically sound the alarm and say that marketing is somehow getting “too scientific.” I’m trying to proceed carefully to show exactly what I think is different, what the harms are and how firms and regulators might respond without hampering free commerce or free speech.

TAP: You testified on the Hill earlier this year about the privacy concerns surrounding domestic drone use. What was the most important theme that resulted from that hearing? [Note: Professor Calo’s witness testimony begins at 50:48 into the webcast.]

CALO: It was a great honor to be able to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this year. I thought the most important themes that emerged from the hearing were that drones were very useful and that current privacy law is very inadequate. The disagreements came in only at the level of what to do about it. My own view is that the courts need to fundamentally rethink the Fourth Amendment; nothing short of this will permit privacy law to catch up to surveillance technology. In the interim, as a stop gap, the Federal Aviation Administration should step in and demand a plan to protect privacy from any entity it licenses to operate drones.

TAP: What is your favorite music album and why?

CALO: I think my favorite album is probably Graceland by Paul Simon. Graceland does not have the musical sophistication of, say, Kid A, or the combination of sweetness and raw candor of an early Indigo Girls or Magnetic Fields album. But it is a deeply innovative and enjoyable work by a master of the art form. The lyrics, too, are wonderful. I think of Simon as being in the same lyrical class as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchel. An example from the song “Further to Fly” on the album The Rhythm of Saints: “There may come a time / When I may lose you / Lose you as I lose my sight / Days falling backward into velvet night.”

Thanks very much for the opportunity to chat about my work!