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When The Robots Attack, How Will We Hold Them Liable?

Publication Date: 
December 07, 2009
The Wall Street Journal Law Blog
Ashby Jones

Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at the Center for Internet & Society, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal Law Blog on robotics and issues of liability:

Yes, so the title of this post is a bit glib. But believe it or not, the issue of robots-and-the-law (or, more accurately, liability stemming from the use of robots) is getting some serious attention in the halls of academia.

A SF Chronicle story out Monday lays out the issue:

Robots have been an increasingly familiar sight in recent years, disarming explosives in Iraq, delivering mail in industrial complexes or bringing drugs to nurses in hospitals. . . .

As robots leave the factories and move into homes and businesses, there is going to be more and more interaction between regular people and increasingly more competent - and mobile - machines, said M. Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. And more contact always means more problems, and the U.S. legal system better be prepared, he said.

“These are devices that don’t have a predetermined usage; they’re not toasters,” he said. “There’s a growing concern now about robot ethics, but what’s missing from those discussions is pragmatic lawyers thinking about what’s going to happen in the future.”


Calo hopes not — that a robust and well-developed robotics industry might hinge, at least in part, on developers working without fear of liability. On that front, Calo suggests that the way liability has been handled in Internet cases could provide a guideline.

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act gives “interactive computer services” immunity from liability for information put on their sites, which means Facebook or other Web site hosts can’t be sued for what others post on their site.

“It’s no coincidence that most Internet companies are based in the United States, which provides that protection,” Calo said, arguing that some similar type of immunity might be needed to protect the robotics industry in the United States.

Because, according to Calo, problems are coming.

“Ready or not, robots are racing into our lives,” he said. “But for most people, the first time they’re going to really notice those robots . . . is when the systems go bad.”