Robotics Commission

By on October 3rd, 2014 in Robotics, Societal Impact

Ryan Calo, UW School of Law, published a recent Brookings Institute Report “The Case for a National Robotics Commission“.  He argues that robotics is sufficiently complex that policy makers (legislative and/or federal commissions) cannot expect to have the expertise to make informed policy recommendations, laws and determinations.  He sites various examples from driver-less cars to Stephen Colbert’s Twitter bot @RealHumanPraise

While I agree with Ryan’s observation about the challenge governments face trying to make informed decisions related to technology issues, I fear “robotics” is too focused of scope.  Similar issues emerge with medical devices, baggage sorting systems and automated phone systems.

The field of Software Engineering is moving towards licensed (Professional Engineering) status in various US states at this time, and that distinction  will help establish criteria for some of the related applications.  Essentially any health or safety related application (cars, medical devices, etc.) should have review/endorsement by a licensed software engineer (as is the case of civil engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.)  That folks might be writing software for critical systems and not be familiar with the concepts surfaced in the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (which is the basis for state licensing exams, the IEEE CS certification program, and a number of IEEE/ISO standards) is a disturbing reality.

Similar considerations exist in the critically  related areas of robotics, sensors, intelligent vehicles — and no doubt will emerge with artificial intelligence over time. Technology domains are moving rapidly on all fronts. Processes to track best practices, standards, university curriculum, vendor independent certifications, licensing, etc. at best lag behind and often get little or no industry/academic support. Identifying knowledge experts is difficult in more static fields. Many of the issues facing policy makers span fields — is it software, hardware, mechanical, etc?

So while the concept of a robotics commission may help get the discussion going, in reality we need a rich community of experts spanning a range of technology fields who are prepared to join in the discussion/analysis as complex issues arise.  Drawing these from pools of corporate lobbyists, or other agenda laden sources is problematic. It may be that partnership between agencies and professional societies may provide such a pool of experts.  Even here the agenda risks are real, but at least there can be some balance between deep-pocket established interests and emerging small companies where disruptive innovation considerations can be taken into account.

What forums exist in your country/culture/environment to help inform policy and regulatory action in technology areas?  How can government draw on informed experts to help?

Image By Brad Beattie at Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0