Robotics and the Law: The New "We Robot" Conference

Robotics and the Law

Legal subtleties will naturally arise as robots become increasingly ubiquitous.   Hizook touched briefly on this topic back when we discussed ISO safety standards for robotics.  However, this topic deserves additional attention.  It's a touch-and-go issue:  It's important not to burden a burgeoning industry with premature regulations, but at the same time, accountability is a serious issue -- especially as robots enter our homes.  Creating a dialog between roboticists and legal professionals would clearly be a good thing.  Naturally, Hizook follows a number of blogs dedicated to the subject, including the aptly-named "Robotics and the Law" blog from Stanford Law.  But we're also happy to share an announcement from U.Miami Professor of Law, Michael Froomkin, who wrote in to tell us about the We Robot 2012 conference later this month.   The full details about the conference are below.  Basically, We Robot is billing itself as the "Inaugural Conference on Legal and Policy Issues Relating to Robotics," whose aim is to "create a conversation between people designing and building robots and the people thinking about the law and policy issues they create."


WeRobot 2012 Conference


Frankly, there are a ton​ of legal topics related to robotics (far too many for us to discuss here).  To name just a few:

  • Safety Standards:  Lots of standards already exist for robots, particularly for medical robots (FDA regulations) and industrial robots (ISO standards).  In fact, Hizook touched briefly on ISO "safety requirements for non-medical personal care robots" a while back.  
  • Autonomous Cars:  To quote Travis and Erico from IEEE Spectrum: "Autonomous vehicles have proliferated in the past few years, with projects in the United States, Germany, France, Italy, the U.K., and China."   Just a couple of months ago, Nevada famously passed a set of rules allowing robotic self-driving cars to receive special driving permits.    But, "Some models of the Prius now have a driving assist function that keeps the car centered on its lane, and another function can park the car all by itself. Though carmakers will insist these are not autonomous driving features, it’s clear that cars are becoming more robotic."   So what are the legal repercussions of (semi-)autonomous cars?  Hopefully conferences like We Robot 2012 and the establishment of internationally recognized standards will lay the groundwork so that Google (among others) can focus on fine-tuning their self-driving cars instead of lobbying governments
  • Liability and Personal Injury:  Sami Haddadin's robot-stabbing antics aside, liability and personal injury issues are a very serious concern for roboticists (and a required topic in any serious academic curricula).  Robots have been responsible for human deaths since (at least) the 1970's.  Right now, Predator drone strikes resulting in human deaths are common (if seldom-publicized), and domestic robots literally have human lives in their hands (eg. the pending wrongful death lawsuit against Intuitive Surgical, makers of the da Vinci Surgical System).  There's every indication that incidents like these are going to increase, intentionally or not, as more robots are placed on battlefields, in hospitals, on roads, and anywhere else people are found.  And along with ubiquity comes lawsuits...
  • ​What is a Robot?  To wit: I've never even heard if a precise definition of a "robot"!  How will they be classified, exactly? Do elevators qualify?  Do our cars?  How about our dishwasher?  Which legislation applies when there are inevitable lawsuits?


Anyway, we're happy that WeRobot is taking a serious crack at these issues.  It looks like there are several interesting presentations on a great variety of topics.  A few that piqued my interest:


Unfortunately, no one from Hizook can attend.  If any readers happen to attend, please leave a copy of your notes in the comments below!  Here is the full text of the We Robot Press Release:

CORAL GABLES, FL (March 14, 2012) — Robots are the next Internet. Eventually, they could be everywhere — in the air, on battlefields, in hospitals, even in your bed. Robots will help capture criminals, take care of the elderly and drive your car.

Like the Internet, their widespread use will bring social and economic transformations. But robots will pose dangers, because in one important way, robots are not like the Internet: They interact directly with the material world. They can and will hurt people — either accidentally or deliberately. “Think of a robot as an iPhone with a corkscrew and a chainsaw attached,” says Professor A. Michael Froomkin of the University of Miami School of Law, who has put together We Robot 2012, a unique conference that will attempt to get a jump on the issues posed by robot technology.

The conference will be held at the University of Miami School of Law, in Coral Gables, Florida, on April 21 and 22.

For all their promise, robots bring with them the potential for legal and policy headaches. If robots come to mimic people with great accuracy, will they change interpersonal relationships? Will the use of robots in law enforcement erode individual privacy and due process rights? Who is responsible when robots learn to harm someone, or to kill? Is it the manufacturer, the programmers, the owners, or perhaps the unwitting neighbor who might have provoked an unexpected response? Who shoulders the criminal responsibility when machines run amok? When is killing by robot a war crime?

The inaugural “We Robot” conference will tackle these issues. It will gather experts on the front lines of robot theory, design and development, as well as those who design or influence the legal and social structures in which robots operate. Guests will include Kate Darling, IP Research Specialist at MIT Media Lab and currently co-teaching “Robot Rights” at Harvard Law School; Dr. Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law; and retired Brigadier General Richard M. O’Meara, who is a professor of International Law in the Division of Global and Homeland Security Affairs at Rutgers University.

“We want to start a conversation, both to help robot designers and policy-makers,” Froomkin says. “There are things that both robot designers and policymakers need to be thinking about, and the chance of getting it right is much greater if we get them to think about it together.”

Robots are entering the national agenda. President Barack Obama recently launched the National Robotics Initiative, a program designed to advance “next-generation robotics.” The focus is on robots that can work closely with humans — helping factory workers, healthcare providers, soldiers, surgeons and others.

That is why the time is right for a national conference to consider the social and policy issues that robots will create. “It’s still early enough to make changes,” says Froomkin, the Laurie Silvers and Mitchell Rubenstein Distinguished Professor of Law. “Some problems will be avoided by early design changes. Other problems may require a tweak in the law to encourage the deployment of helpful new technologies. But in some cases, we’re going to find that there’s just a real conflict between what robots might do and policies we value. Even in those cases, it’s better to start the conversation early.”

The conference is free and open to the public, but advance reservations are required because of limited space. For more information, go to

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The University of Miami’s mission is to educate and nurture students, to create knowledge, and to provide service to our community and beyond. Committed to excellence and proud of the diversity of our University family, we strive to develop future leaders of our nation and the world. The University of Miami School of Law‘s mission is to foster the intellectual discipline, creativity, and critical skills that will prepare its graduates for the highest standards of professional competence in the practice of law in a global environment subject to continual — and not always predictable — transformation; to cultivate a broad range of legal and interdisciplinary scholarship that, working at the cutting edge of its field, enhances the development of law and legal doctrine, and deepens society’s understanding of law and its role in society; and to fulfill the legal profession’s historic duty to promote the interests of justice.



View the conference live now!

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—We Robot Attendee