TIME Amazon

Why Amazon Is Hosting a $25,000 Robot Showdown

Amazon Opens Fulfillment Center In DuPont, Washington
Stephen Brashear—Getty Images Amazon Kiva robots, which help fill orders by bringing shelves of merchandise to Amazon Associates, navigate an Amazon Fulfillment Center on February 13, 2015 in DuPont, Washington.

One small step for robots, one giant leap for warehouse automation

Some 25 teams will compete in Amazon’s upcoming robot throwdown, a competition that will test the outer limits of what a robot can see, grasp and pack into a cardboard box.

The e-commerce giant recently awarded travel grants to 25 robot team finalists who will be flown to Seattle this May to compete in Amazon’s Picking Challenge. Each team’s robot will be confronted with a shelf of 25 common household items. It will have to accurately identify, grasp and package the items with care.

Points will be awarded for computer vision — the ability to tell apart a box of Oreo cookies, for instance, from a box of Cheez-It crackers — as well as dexterity. Dropping or damaging an item will result in points deducted, MIT Technology Review reports. The winner will receive $25,000 in prize money.

Robots already play an instrumental role in Amazon’s packaging centers, ferrying 700-pound inventory shelves in and out of storage, but the challenges of handling individual objects with care has posed a persistent challenge for researchers. Amazon says it hopes the contest will “strengthen the ties between the industrial and academic robotic communities and promote shared and open solutions.”

TIME robotics

Meet Sawyer, a New Robot That Wants to Revolutionize Manufacturing

It can do far more delicate tasks than most factory robots

There’s a new robot in town.

Meet Sawyer, a new robot unveiled Thursday by Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based robotics company aiming to make factories more efficient, safer and more productive.

Weighing in at 41.9 lbs and standing 3.3 feet tall, the one-armed Sawyer is smaller and more flexible than Rethink’s only other robot, the double-armed Baxter, which debuted in 2012. While Baxter has helped companies do heavy duty work like loading boxes, Sawyer was created to automate more detailed, smaller tasks, like testing circuit boards and machine tending — jobs that have traditionally proven too intricate for industrial robots.

“[Baxter] gave us a tremendous base of companies that were thinking like us. We have a vision, idea and experience, but we don’t necessarily have all the answers,'” Rethink CMO Jim Lawton says of Sawyer’s development, which began in late 2013. “It’s like taking one step across the river. You can’t get there in one step, so you need to build commercially viable products as stepping stones. Eventually, you get to the other side of the river.”

Rethink’s customers have already used both robots — though Sawyer only in field tests — to perform low-level factory jobs, positions that are often menial, dangerous or undesirable. The machines are also relatively cheap: Sawyer will start at $29,000 when it’s introduced more widely this fall, while Baxter starts at $25,000; similar robots can cost several times more. The robots’ signature touch is digital “faces” that double as easy-to-use interfaces, allowing companies to get Sawyer and Baxter up-and-running within hours or days.

Together, Sawyer and Baxter are just two of the many robots fueling fears automation and other technologies are taking humans’ jobs. Rethink is used to the criticism: factory labor has long been a politically charged topic, and the seven-year-old startup has often been in the spotlight thanks to its big-name investors like Bezos Expeditions and Charles River Ventures. Rethink’s most recent funding round in January raised $26.6 million. That’s considered a significant investment in the robotics industry, which is expected to grow 12% globally every year, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Still, Rethink Robotics argues that its robots will only supplement their human counterparts, not outmode them. “Companies who are buying robots are filling in the tasks they can’t get people to stay and do,” says co-founder Rodney Brooks. “They’re using the people they have more positively by using their intelligence.”

Global manufacturing company Jabil, which uses thousands of robots including Sawyer and Baxter, agrees that robots will support instead of replace manufacturing workers. After all, the manufacturing field is in global decline as emerging and advanced economies shift toward high-skill jobs, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report. In the U.S., for example, the share of jobs in manufacturing fell from 25% in 1950 to about 9% in 2013.

“The trend that’s across the entire manufacturing continuum is a demographic shift that’s making it more and more difficult to attract the kind of low-cost labor that we’ve been able to do in the past, and to keep wages at the levels they’re at,” says John Dulchinos, VP of global automation at Jabil. “Robots by themselves aren’t the answer, but robots are a piece of the equation.”

TIME robotics

This Robot Learns How to Copy Your Handwriting

Pen-wielding robots create notes that look handwritten

A New York City-based startup has created robots that can learn your handwriting—and turn digital notes you write into letters penned on crisp stationery that look like you hand-wrote them yourself.

The startup, called Bond, instructs customers to send in a writing sample. Calligraphers who work at the company help digitize the handwriting in part by hand-tracing the letters. From there, Bond’s pen-wielding robots can convert typed-out notes into physical letters written on stationery the customer selects.

Bond stuffs the envelope and sends the “handwritten” note to the recipient…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME space travel

Your Ride on Another Planet Will Be Self-Driven

Latest Electronics Products Are Displayed At Ceatec Japan
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Nissan Motor Co.'s Autonomous Drive Leaf electric vehicle is driven for a demonstration ride at the CEATEC Japan 2013 exhibition in Chiba, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.

NASA and Nissan team up to create autonomous vehicles for other worlds

Nissan has begun developing a self-driving car in partnership with NASA, in the hopes that some of the technology will one day be used to ferry passengers around on other planets.

The Japanese car manufacturer and the U.S. space agency announced a five-year partnership on Thursday to jointly engineer vehicles capable of self-operation, Wired magazine reports.

The cars will be developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, close to Nissan’s Silicon Valley facility in California. They will also be zero emission, modeled on the electric Nissan Leaf.

“This is a perfect blend of the capability of what the robotics folks at NASA Ames have and the autonomy that we bring,” said Martin Sierhuis, the director of Nissan’s Silicon Valley research center. Sierhuis, incidentally, is a former NASA scientist.

NASA said that it was looking forward to using some of the automation technology pioneered by Nissan in its space programs. “We have a rover on Mars. It is not very autonomous. As we go deeper into space, into more and more dangerous locations, we need to add that autonomy,” Pete Worden, director of the Ames Research Center, told Wired.


TIME robotics

5 Very Smart People Who Think Artificial Intelligence Could Bring the Apocalypse

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking poses for a picture ahead of a gala screening of the documentary 'Hawking', a film about the scientist's life.
AFP/Getty Images Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking poses for a picture ahead of a gala screening of the documentary 'Hawking', a film about the scientist's life.

'The end of the human race'

On the list of doomsday scenarios that could wipe out the human race, super-smart killer robots rate pretty high in the public consciousness. And in scientific circles, a growing number of artificial intelligence experts agree that humans will eventually create an artificial intelligence that can think beyond our own capacities. This moment, called the singularity, could create a utopia in which robots automate common forms of labor and humans relax amid bountiful resources. Or it could lead the artificial intelligence, or AI, to exterminate any creatures it views as competitors for control of the Earth—that would be us. Stephen Hawking has long seen the latter as more likely, and he made his thoughts known again in a recent interview with the BBC. Here are some comments by Hawking and other very smart people who agree that, yes, AI could be the downfall of humanity.

Stephen Hawking

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” the world-renowned physicist told the BBC. “It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” Hawking has been voicing this apocalyptic vision for a while. In a May column in response to Transcendence, the sci-fi movie about the singularity starring Johnny Depp, Hawking criticized researchers for not doing more to protect humans from the risks of AI. “If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, ‘We’ll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here—we’ll leave the lights on’? Probably not—but this is more or less what is happening with AI,” he wrote.

Elon Musk

Known for his businesses on the cutting edge of tech, such as Tesla and SpaceX, Musk is no fan of AI. At a conference at MIT in October, Musk likened improving artificial intelligence to “summoning the demon” and called it the human race’s biggest existential threat. He’s also tweeted that AI could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Musk called for the establishment of national or international regulations on the development of AI.

Nick Bostrom

The Swedish philosopher is the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, where he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the potential outcomes of the singularity. In his new book Superintelligence, Bostrom argues that once machines surpass human intellect, they could mobilize and decide to eradicate humans extremely quickly using any number of strategies (deploying unseen pathogens, recruiting humans to their side or simple brute force). The world of the future would become ever more technologically advanced and complex, but we wouldn’t be around to see it. “A society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit,” he writes. “A Disneyland without children.”

James Barrat

Barrat is a writer and documentarian who interviewed many AI researchers and philosophers for his new book, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.” He argues that intelligent beings are innately driven toward gathering resources and achieving goals, which would inevitably put a super-smart AI in competition with humans, the greatest resource hogs Earth has ever known. That means even a machine that was just supposed to play chess or fulfill other simple functions might get other ideas if it was smart enough. “Without meticulous, countervailing instructions, a self-aware, self-improving, goal-seeking system will go to lengths we’d deem ridiculous to fulfill its goals,” he writes in the book.

Vernor Vinge

A mathematician and fiction writer, Vinge is thought to have coined the term “the singularity” to describe the inflection point when machines outsmart humans. He views the singularity as an inevitability, even if international rules emerge controlling the development of AI. “The competitive advantage—economic, military, even artistic—of every advance in automation is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will get them first,” he wrote in a 1993 essay. As for what happens when we hit the singularity? “The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility,” he writes.

TIME robotics

Meet the Robots Shipping Your Amazon Orders

New machines are helping the retail giant get your stuff home on time

Across the country, laborers are hard at work lifting 700-pound shelves full of multivolume encyclopedias, propane grills or garden gnomes and dragging them across vast warehouse floors. Carefully trained not to bump into one another, the squat workers are 320 pounds and a mere 16 inches tall.

No, they’re not Christmas elves—they’re some of the most advanced robots that e-commerce giant Amazon now uses to ship its goods. In an exclusive video for TIME, photographer and videographer Stephen Wilkes captured these Amazon robots in action at the company’s Tracy, Calif., warehouse.

The robots are made by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon purchased for $775 million in 2012 to better handle the hundreds of worldwide orders Amazon customers make every second. Kiva’s robots bring shelves of goods out of storage and carry them to employees, allowing Amazon to retrieve more items for more customers simultaneously. Amazon began using these robots in July of this year, and there are now more than 15,000 of them in 10 of the company’s warehouses. They whir around like gears on a Swiss watch.

Three quarters of a billion dollars may seem like a lot to sink into a retrieving system, but Amazon’s profits depend on the company becoming ever more efficient at shipping orders. The cost of processing packages is growing faster than the company’s sales are. Amazon spent nearly $8.6 billion in 2013 on fulfillment, a 34% increase from the year before; the company’s total sales grew 22% in the same period. This year, Amazon is on track to spend a sum about as large as the entire economy of Mongolia just to push its packages. (Amazon as a whole lost $437 million last quarter, as the company reinvests income into its own growth.)

Amazon Senior Vice President of Operations Dave Clark says improvements such as the Kiva robots have significantly increased operations efficiency while making employees’ lives easier. Amazon has sometimes been criticized for the conditions in its fulfillment centers, with workers often logging over 10 hours a day and walking up to 15 miles in a shift to pick items off the shelves. Conditions at a Pennsylvania warehouse drew attention to Amazon’s employment practices during the summer of 2011, when temperatures there reportedly reached 110 degrees and employees regularly collapsed with heatstroke. (Amazon has since installed air-conditioners in its warehouses.) The Kiva robots cut out much of the hard “picking” work and bring items directly to workers, who then process the orders.

“[Kiva] eliminates the part that was not a fun part about picking,” Clark says.

The days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are Amazon’s busiest of the year. Customers ordered 426 items per second on the Monday following Thanksgiving last year, the day online retailers have branded as “Cyber Monday.”

Clark insists the robots are “not about eliminating jobs.” Connie Gilbert, a picker at the Tracy fulfillment center, said more people have been hired to join her team since the Kiva robots were installed, because more robots mean more work. “The work pace is faster and the robots are continuously coming,” Gilbert says. “We have a lot more people that have come in to work and help us out.”

About 80,000 workers are expected to come on board as temporary help for the holidays this year. Many of them will be tasked with picking items from warehouse shelves — but others will ask a robot to do it for them.

Read next: Top 10 Gadgets of 2014

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TIME robotics

This 6-Foot Robot Moves Like the Karate Kid

But we're still waiting to see the full-blown crane kick

The Google-owned robotics company Boston Dynamics has created a 6’2″, 330-pound robot that can mimic moves from The Karate Kid.

The robot, dubbed Atlas, isn’t quite a full-blown ninja yet—in a new video, the robot is shown balancing on a cinderblock on one leg and raising his arms slowly in the air, as in the iconic movie scene where Ralph Macchio unleashes the crane kick. While Boston Dynamics built the hardware, a robotics research institute called IHMC programmed the robot’s moves.

When not practicing karate, the Atlas robots are actually designed to provide humanitarian relief in areas that people cannot enter, such as nuclear disaster sites. Boston Dynamics has also created a robotic dog and a wildcat that can run at speeds of 25 miles per hour.


TIME Companies

Android Founder Ditches Google for Tech Startup

Google Ice Cream Sandwich Debuts As IPhone Sets Record
Jerome Favre—Bloomberg / Getty Images Andy Rubin, senior vice-president of Google Inc.'s mobile division, speaks during an event in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011.

Andy Rubin helped build and expand the Android operating system to one billion users

A senior Google executive who spearheaded the launch and expansion of the Android mobile operating system to more than one billion users has left Google for a startup venture, the company announced Thursday.

Andy Rubin led the development of Google’s mobile platform until last year, when he briefly took the helm of the company’s nascent robotics unit. He pushed for the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that has made waves with its spry, four-legged machines that can run like a cheetah. Rubin is leaving the company to launch an incubator for startups focused on developing hardware products, the Wall Street Journal reports.

CEO Larry Page bid farewell to Rubin in a public statement on Thursday. “I want to wish Andy all the best with what’s next,” Page said. “With Android he created something truly remarkable— with a billion-plus happy users.”

Rubin will be succeeded by James Kuffner, a senior member of Google’s robotics team, which the company said would continue to form a core element of its business strategy.

TIME robotics

Facebook Wi-Fi Drone the Size of a Jumbo Jet Could Fly in 2015

Internet.org An illustration of a drone to be designed by Facebook and Internet.org

Hoping to test out its Wi-Fi-providing unmanned aircraft by next year

The Facebook drones are on their way, and we’re not talking about bored friends who send out Candy Crush Saga invites. The company shared a few more details about its plan to use drones to provide free Wi-Fi to the two-thirds of the world’s population that lack Internet access. First, don’t call them “drones,” Yael Maguire, engineering director of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, said Monday at the Social Good Summit in New York City. Instead he refers to them as “planes,” seeing as they will be “roughly the size” of airplanes “like a 747,” although much, much lighter.

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Innovation

America Needs a Federal Robotics Agency

Honda's latest version of the Asimo humanoid robot shakes hands during a presentation in Zaventem near Brussels
Francois Lenoir—REUTERS Honda's latest version of the Asimo humanoid robot shakes hands during a presentation in Zaventem near Brussels July 16, 2014. Honda introduced in Belgium an improved version of its Asimo humanoid robot that it says has enhanced intelligence and hand dexterity, and is able to run at a speed of some 9 kilometres per hour (5.6 miles per hour).

Ryan Calo is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law.

A host of emerging technologies require a coordinated set of laws and regulations as society adapts

This piece originally appeared on Brookings.

The U.S. Department of Transportation had a problem: Toyota customers were alleging that their vehicle had accelerated unexpectedly, causing death or injury. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found some mechanical problems that may have accounted for the accidents—specifically, a design flaw that enabled accelerator pedals to become trapped by floor mats—but other experts suspected a software issue was to blame. Like most contemporary vehicles, Toyotas rely on computers to control many elements of the car. Congress was worried enough at the prospect of glitches in millions of vehicles that it directed the DOT to look for electronic causes.

NHTSA lacked the expertise to disentangle the complex set of interactions between software and hardware “under the hood.” The agency struggled over what to do until it hit upon an idea: let’s ask NASA. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration builds semi-autonomous systems and sends them to other planets; it has deep expertise in complex software and hardware. Indeed, NASA was able to clear Toyota’s software in a February 2011 report. “We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems,” proudly stated U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.”

Under extraordinary circumstances, the best and brightest at NASA can take a break from repairing space stations or building Mars robots to take a look at the occasional Toyota. But this is not a sustainable strategy in the long run. Physical systems that sense, process, and act upon the world—robots, in other words—are increasingly commonplace. Google, Tesla, and others contemplate widespread driverless cars using software far more complex than what runs in a 2010 sedan. Amazon would like to deliver packages to our homes using autonomous drones. Bill Gates predicts a robot in every home. By many accounts, robotics and artificial intelligence are poised to become the next transformative technology of our time.

I have argued in a series of papers that robotics enables novel forms of human experience and, as such, challenges prevailing assumptions of law and policy. My focus here is on a more specific question: whether robotics, collectively as a set of technologies, will or should occasion the establishment of a new federal agency to deal with the novel experiences and harms robotics enables.

New agencies do form from time to time. Although many of the household-name federal agencies have remained the same over the previous decades, there has also been considerable change. Agencies restructure, as we saw with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. New agencies, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, arise to address new or newly acute challenges posed by big events or changes in behavior.

Technology has repeatedly played a meaningful part in the formation of new agencies. For instance, the advent of radio made it possible to reach thousands of people at once with entertainment, news, and emergency information. The need to manage the impact of radio on society in turn led to the formation in 1926 of the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC itself morphed into the Federal Communications Commission as forms of mass media proliferated and is today charged with a variety of tasks related to communications devices and networks.

The advent of the train required massive changes to national infrastructure, physically connected disparate communities, and consistently sparked, sometimes literally, harm to people and property. We formed the Federal Railroad Administration in response. This agency now lives within the U.S. Department of Transportation, though the DOT itself grew out of the ascendance of rail and later the highway. The introduction of the vaccine and the attendant need to organize massive outreach to Americans helped turn a modest U.S. Marine Hospital Service into the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and sowed the seeds for the Department of Health and Human Services. And, of course, there would be no Federal Aviation Administration without the experiences and challenges of human flight.

In this piece, I explore whether advances in robotics also call for a standalone body within the federal government. I tentatively conclude that the United States would benefit from an agency dedicated to the responsible integration of robotics technologies into American society. Robots, like radio or trains, make possible new human experiences and create distinct but related challenges that would benefit from being examined and treated together. They do require special expertise to understand and may require investment and coordination to thrive.

The institution I have in mind would not “regulate” robotics in the sense of fashioning rules regarding their use, at least not in any initial incarnation. Rather, the agency would advise on issues at all levels—state and federal, domestic and foreign, civil and criminal—that touch upon the unique aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence and the novel human experiences these technologies generate. The alternative, I fear, is that we will continue to address robotics policy questions piecemeal, perhaps indefinitely, with increasingly poor outcomes and slow accrual of knowledge. Meanwhile, other nations that are investing more heavily in robotics and, specifically, in developing a legal and policy infrastructure for emerging technology, will leapfrog the U.S. in innovation for the first time since the creation of steam power.

This piece proceeds as follows: The first section briefly describes some of the challenges robotics present, both specifically by technology, and in general, across technologies. The second describes what a federal robotics agency might look like in the near term. Section three addresses a handful of potential objections to the establishment of a federal robotics agency and a final section concludes. My hope for this piece is to give readers a sense of the challenges ahead, diagnose our potentially worrisome trajectory here in the United States, and perhaps open the door to a conversation about what to do next.

Law & Robotics

Robotics stands poised to transform our society. This set of technologies has seen massive investment by the military and industry, as well as sustained attention by the media and other social, cultural, and economic institutions. Law is already responding: several states have laws governing driverless cars. Other states have laws concerning the use of drones. In Virginia, there is a law that requires insurance to cover the costs of telerobotic care.

The federal government is also dealing with robotics. There have been repeated hearings on drones and, recently, on high speed trading algorithms (market robots) and other topics on the Hill. Congress charged the Federal Aviation Administration with creating a plan to integrate drones into the national airspace by 2015. The Food and Drug Administration approved, and is actively monitoring, robotic surgery. And the NHTSA, in addition to dealing with software glitches in manned vehicles, has looked extensively at the issue of driverless cars and even promulgated guidance.

This activity is interesting and important, but hopelessly piecemeal: agencies, states, courts, and others are not in conversation with one another. Even the same government entities fail to draw links across similar technologies; drones come up little in discussions of driverless cars despite presenting similar issues of safety, privacy, and psychological unease.

Much is lost in this patchwork approach. Robotics and artificial intelligence produce a distinct set of challenges with considerable overlap—an insight that gets lost when you treat each robot separately. Specifically, robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with physical embodiment—robots are software that can touch you. For better or for worse, we have been very tolerant of the harms that come from interconnectivity and disruptive innovation—including privacy, security, and hate speech. We will have to strike a new balance when bones are on the line in addition to bits.

Robotics increasingly display emergent behavior, meaning behavior that is useful but cannot be anticipated in advance by operators. The value of these systems is that they accomplish a task that we did not realize was important, or they accomplish a known goal in a way that we did not realize was possible. Kiva Systems does not organize Amazon’s warehouses the way a human would, which is precisely why Amazon engaged and later purchased the company. Yet criminal, tort, and other types of law rely on human intent and foreseeability to apportion blame when things go wrong.

Take two real examples of software “bots” that exist today. The first, created by artist and programmer Darius Kazemi, buys random things on Amazon. Were Kazemi’s bot to purchase something legal in the jurisdiction of origin but unlawful where he lives, could he be prosecuted? Not under many statutes, which are formulated to require intent. Or consider the Twitter bot @RealHumanPraise. The brainchild of comedian Stephen Colbert, this account autonomously combines snippets from movie reviews from the website Rotten Tomatoes with the names of Fox News personalities. The prospect of accidental libel is hardly out of the question: The bot has, for instance, suggested that one personality got drunk on communion wine. But free speech principles require not only specific intent but “actual malice” when speaking about a public figure.

The stakes are even higher when systems not only display emergent properties but also cause physical harm. Without carefully revisiting certain doctrines, we may see increasing numbers of victims without perpetrators, i.e., people hurt by robots but with no one to take the blame. Putting on one’s law and economics hat for a moment, this could lead to suboptimal activity levels (too much or too little) for helpful but potentially dangerous activities. What I mean is that, under current law, people who use robotic systems may not be held accountable for the harm those systems do, and hence may deploy them more than they should. Or, alternatively, people might never deploy potentially helpful emergent systems for fear of uncertain and boundless legal liability.

Finally, robots have a unique social meaning to people: more than any previous technology, they feel social to us. There is an extensive literature to support the claim that people are “hardwired” to react to anthropomorphic technology such as robots as though a person were actually present. The tendency is so strong that soldiers have reportedly risked their own lives to “save” a military robot in the field. The law impliedly separates things or “res” from agents and people in a variety of contexts; law and legal institutions will have to revisit this dichotomy in light of the blurring distinction between the two in contexts as diverse as punishment, damages, and the law of agency.

The upshot for policy is twofold. First, robotics presents a distinct set of related challenges. And second, the bodies that are dealing with these challenges have little or no expertise in them, and accrue new expertise at a snail’s pace. It is time to start talking about whether a common institutional structure could help the law catch up, i.e., serve as a repository for expertise about a transformative technology of our time, helping lawmakers, jurists, the media, the public, and others prepare for the sea change that appears to be afoot.

Arguably we have already seen a need for a federal robotics agency or its equivalent based on these three properties of robotics and AI organized to act upon the world. I opened with an example of Toyota and sudden acceleration. But this is just one of the many issues that embodiment, emergence, and social meaning have already raised. Some issues, likes drones and driverless cars, are all over the news. Another, high-speed trading algorithms, is the subject of a best-selling book by Michael Lewis. Still others, however, concern high stake technologies you may have never heard of let alone experienced, in part because the problems they generate have yet to be resolved to stakeholder satisfaction and so they do not see the light of day.

Driverless cars

The state of Nevada passed the first driverless car law in 2011. It represented one of the first robot-specific laws in recent memory, as well as one of the first errors due to lack of expertise. Specifically, the Nevada legislature initially defined “autonomous vehicles” to refer to any substitution of artificial intelligence for a human operator. Various commentators pointed out that car functionality substitutes for people quite often, as when a crash avoidance system breaks to avoid an accident with a sudden obstacle. Nevada’s initial definition would have imposed hefty obligations on a variety of commercially available vehicles. The state had to repeal its new law and pass a new definition.

One of the most significant challenges posed by driverless cars, however defined, is human reaction to a robot being in control. Human error accounts for an enormous percentage of driving fatalities, which number in the tens of thousands. The promise of driverless cars is, in part, vastly to reduce these accidents. In a “perfect,” post-driver world, the circle of fatalities caused by vehicles would simply shrink. The resulting diagram would look something like this:

perfect world

But in reality, driverless cars are likely to create new kinds of accidents, even as they dramatically reduce accidents overall. Thus, the real diagram is more likely to look something like this:

real world

The addition of even a tiny new area of liability could have outsized repercussions. A robot may always be better than a human driver at avoiding a shopping cart. And it may always be better at avoiding a stroller. But what happens when a robot confronts a shopping cart and a stroller at the same time? You or I would plow right into a shopping cart—or even a wall—to avoid hitting a stroller. A driverless car might not. The first headline, meanwhile, to read “Robot Car Kills Baby To Avoid Groceries” could end autonomous driving in the United States—and, ironically, drive fatalities back up. This possibility will be hard for laws, insurance, or video clips to inoculate against, requiring instead a subtle understanding of how the public perceives autonomous technologies in their midst.


More immediate, because further along, is the case of domestic drones. Back in 2010, I predicted that drones would catalyze a national conversation around technology and privacy. Unlike the Internet and other vehicles of data collection and process, I reasoned, it is easy for people to form a mental model of drone surveillance: there is a flying, inscrutable metal object, one you associated with the theatre of war, looking down upon you. Lawmakers and the public (but not yet the courts) have indeed reacted viscerally to the prospect of commercial and governmental use of drones domestically. Initially, however, the FAA through its officials attempted to distance itself from the problem. The agency observed that its main expertise is in safety, not civil liberties. It was only following tremendous outside pressure that the FAA began formally to consider the privacy impact of drones. The agency missed this issue—continues to miss it, to a degree—because it has no little to no experience with social meaning.

Law that confronts drones also tends to be underinclusive. There is little reason to target robots that can fly and take pictures over those that, say, climb the side of buildings or can be thrown into a building or over a crime scene. Arguably there is no good reason even to exclude birds with cameras attached to them—an old technique that is seeing something of a renaissance with cheap and light digital video. And yet “drone” laws almost inevitably limits themselves to “unmanned aircraft systems” as defined by the FAA, which would leave law enforcement and private companies and individuals quite a few options for mobile surveillance.

Finally, FAA policy toward commercial drones has been roundly criticized for being arbitrary and non-transparent, including by an administrative law judge. Here, again, the agency’s lack of experience with robotics—including what should or should not be characterized as a robot—may be playing a role. On the one hand, operators of small, low-flying drones argue that the FAA should not bother to regulate them because they do not raise issues any different than a remote control airplane flown by a hobbyist. On the other, Amazon is concerned because the company would eventually like to deliver packages by drone autonomously and the recent FAA roadmap on drone interpretation seems to take autonomous navigation off of the table. These debates are ongoing before the agency itself and the courts.

Finance algorithms

I mentioned the prospect of emergent behavior and the challenges it might pose for law and legal institutions. Michael Lewis’ new book Flash Boys has raised awareness of the central role of one potential hazard, algorithmic trading, on Wall Street. The SEC has been looking at the issue of high-speed trading, and the market volatility it can create, for years. The Commission seems no closer today to a solution than it was in the immediate wake of the 2010 “flash crash” where the market lost a significant percentage of its overall value in just a few minutes.

But high-speed trading could be the tip of the iceberg. Imagine, for instance, a programmer that designs software capable of predicting when a stock will make sudden gains in value—surely a gold mine for traders. This software is comprised of a learning algorithm capable of processing large volumes of information, current and historical, to find patterns. Were this software successful, traders would not necessarily understand how it worked. They might feed it data they felt was innocuous but that, in combination with publicly available information, gave the algorithm what would otherwise be understood as forbidden insider information under the mosaic theory of insider trading. These traders or programmers might never be prosecuted, however, again because of the nature of criminal statutes.

Legal scholars such as Tom Lin and Daria Roithmayer are looking at how law can adapt to the new reality of computer-driven investment. Their insights and others in this space will inform not just high frequency trading, but any very fast and automated activity with real world repercussions. In the interim, the law is still unsure how to handle the prospect of emergent behavior that ranges from benign, to useful, to potentially catastrophic.

Cognitive radio

A contemporary example you may not have heard of is the “cognitive radio,” i.e., radios capable of “choosing” the frequency or power at which they will operate. Radios in general are locked down to one specific frequency so as not to interfere with other devices or networks. (A chief reason your cell phone has an FCC emblem on it is because the FCC is certifying non-interference.) But communications bandwidth is scarce, and many believe it is not being used efficiently. Cognitive radio has the capability to modulate various parameters, including frequency and power, intelligently and in real time. These systems could operate on, for instance, emergency frequencies while they are not being used, or put out power just short of interfering with the next broadcaster a few miles away.

The upside of such technology, which is already in use in limited contexts today, is large and clear: suddenly more devices can work at the same time and more efficiently. The downside is equally large. Communications companies pay enormous sums to lease spectrum to provide services to consumers. In the case of emergency frequencies used by first responders, interference could be literally life threatening. Cognitive radios can malfunction and they can be hacked, for instance, by convincing a device it is in the mountains of Colorado instead of the city of San Francisco. Thus, as the FCC has recognized, cognitive radios must have adequate security and there must be a mechanism by which to correct errors, i.e., where the radio uses a frequency or power it should not.

The FCC has been looking at cognitive radio for ten years; comments on how best to implement this technology remain open today. Current proposals include, for instance, a dual structure whereby meta algorithms identify and punish “bad” cognitive radios. Technologists at UC Berkeley, Microsoft, and elsewhere claim these solutions are feasible. But how does the FCC evaluate the potential, especially where incumbent providers or institutions such as the Navy tell the FCC that the risks of interference remain too high? It would be useful, arguably at least, for a single agency with deep expertise in emergent software phenomena to help the SEC and FCC evaluate what to do about these, and many other, artificial intelligence problems.

Surgical robots

I have outlined a few instances where technology policy lags behind or delays robotics and AI. We might be tempted to draw the lesson that agencies move too slowly in general. And yet, problems with robotics can as easily come from an agency moving too quickly. For instance, consider recent lawsuits involving surgical robotics. Some think the FDA moved too quickly to approve robotic surgery by analogizing it to laparoscopic surgery. The issues that arise, at least judging by lawsuits for medical malpractice, seem to stem from the differences between robotic and laparoscopic surgery. For instance, and setting aside allegations that improperly insulated wires burned some patients, robots can glitch. Glitches have not led to harm directly but rather require the surgical team to transition from robotic to manual and hence keep the patient under anesthetic longer.

FRC: A Thought Experiment

I have argued that present efforts to address robotics have been piecemeal in approach and, too often, unfortunate in outcome. Much of the problem turns on the lack of familiarity with robotics and the sorts of issues the mainstreaming of this technology occasions. The FAA does not know what to say to Amazon about delivering goods by drone, and so it says “no.” Even where one government body learns a lesson, the knowledge does not necessarily make its way to any other. Here I conduct a thought experiment: what if the United States were to address this problem, as it has addressed similar problems in the not-so-distant past, by creating a standalone entity—an agency with the purpose of fostering, learning about, and advising upon robotics and its impact on society?

Agencies look all kinds of ways; a Federal Robotics Commission would have to be configured in a manner appropriate to its task. Outside of the factory and military contexts, robotics is a fledgling industry. It should be approached as such. There are dangers, but nothing to suggest we need a series of specific rules about robots, let alone a default rule against their use in particular contexts (sometimes called the “precautionary principle”) as some commentators demand. Rather, we need a deep appreciation of the technology, of the relevant incentives of those who create and consume it, and of the unfolding and inevitable threat to privacy, labor, physical safety, and so on which robotics actually presents.

At least initially, then, a Federal Robotics Commission would be small and consist of a handful of engineers and others with backgrounds in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, and human-computer interaction, right alongside experts in law and policy. It would hardly be the first interdisciplinary agency: the FTC houses economists and technologists in addition to its many lawyers, for example. And, taking a page from NASA or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the FRC should place conscious emphasis on getting the “best and brightest.” Such an emphasis, coupled with a decent salary and the undeniable cache of robotics in tech-savvy circles, could help populate the FRC with top talent otherwise likely to remain in industry or academia.25

What would an FRC do then? Here are some tasks for a properly envisioned Commission:

  • Channel federal dollars into basic robotics research in an attempt to solve the still considerable technical challenges this technology presents.
  • Attract highly skilled technologists who might be reticent to work for the government otherwise.
  • Advise other federal agencies on matters having to do with robotics, including the DOT on driverless cars, the SEC on high speed trading, the FDA on robotic medical devices, the FCC on cognitive radios, the FAA on drones and, eventually, the Federal Trade Commission on increasingly sophisticated consumer products.
  • Advise federal, state, and local lawmakers on robotics law and policy.
  • Convene domestic and international stakeholders from industry, government, academia, and NGOs to discuss the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on society.
  • File amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, as many federal agencies do today, in matters involving highly complex interactions between software and hardware.

There is much room for disagreement over this list. One could question the organizational structure. The thought experiment is just that: an attempt to envision how the United States can be most competitive with respect to an emerging transformative technology. I address some deeper forms of skepticism in the next section.


Today many people appreciate that robotics is a serious and meaningful technology. But suggesting that we need an entirely new agency to deal with it may strike even the robot enthusiast as overmuch. This section addresses some of the pushback—perhaps correct, and regardless healthy—that a radical thought experiment like an FRC might occasion.

Do we really need another agency?

When I have outlined these ideas in public, reactions have varied, but criticism tended to take the following form: We need another federal agency? Really?

Agencies have their problems, of course. They can be inefficient and are subject to capture by those they regulate or other special interests. I have in this very piece criticized three agencies for their respective approaches or actions toward robotics. This question—whether agencies represent a good way to govern and, if so, what is the best design—is a worthwhile one. It is the subject of a robust and long-standing debate in administrative law that cannot be reproduced here. But it has little to do with robotics. As discussed, we have agencies devoted to technologies already and it would be odd and anomalous to think we are done creating them.

A more specific version of the “really?” question asks whether we really want to “regulate” robotics at this early stage. I am very sympathetic to this point and have myself argued that we ought to remove roadblocks to innovation in robotics. I went so far as to argue that manufacturers of open robotics systems ought to be immunized for what users do with these platforms, product liability being a kind of “regulation” of business activities that emanates from the courts.

Let me clarify again that I am using the term “regulate” rather broadly. And further, that there is nothing intrinsically anathematic between regulation and innovation. Copyright is regulation meant to promote creativity (arguably). Net neutrality is regulation meant to remove barriers to competition. Google—a poster child for innovation in business and, last I checked, a for-profit company—actively lobbied Nevada and other states to regulate driverless cars. One assumes they did this to avoid uncertainty around the legality of their technology and with the hopes that other legislatures would instruct their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to pass rules as well.

Note also that agencies vary tremendously in their structure and duties; the FTC, FDA, and SEC are enforcement agencies, for instance. Contrast them to, say, the Department of Commerce, DARPA, the Office of Management and Budget, or NASA itself. My claim is not that we need an enforcement agency for robotics—indeed, I believe it would highly undesirable to subject robotics and artificial intelligence to a general enforcement regime at such an early place in its life cycle. My claim is that we need a repository of expertise so that other agencies, as well as lawmakers and courts, do not make avoidable errors in their characterization and regulation of this technology.

A possible further response is that we have bodies capable of providing input already—for instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or the Congressional Research Service. I would concede that these and other institutions could serve as repositories for knowledge about complex software and hardware. OSTP had a very serious roboticist—Vijay Kumar at University of Pennsylvania—serve as its “assistant director of robotics and cyber physical systems” for a time, and the Office’s mandate overlaps here and there with the possible FRC tasks I outline in the previous section.

Yet the diffusion of expertise across multiple existing agencies would make less and less sense over time. If robotics takes on the importance of, for instance, cars, weather prediction, broadcast communications, or rail travel, we would want in place the kernel of an agency that could eventually coordinate and regulate the technology in earnest. Moreover, even in the short run, there would be oddness and discomfort in an institution that generally advises on a particular issue (e.g., standards), or to a particular constituency (e.g., Congress), suddenly acting as a general convener and broad advisor to all manner of institutions that have to grapple with robotics. Although I could see how existing institutions could manage in theory, in practice I believe we would be better off starting from scratch with a new mandate.

How are robots different from computers?

I will address one last critique briefly, inspired by the response science fiction writer Cory Doctorow had to my recent law review article on robotics. Writing for The Guardian, Doctorow expresses skepticism that there was any meaningful distinction at law or otherwise between robots and computers. As such, Doctorow does not see how the law could “regulate” robotics specifically, as opposed to computers and the networks that connect them. “For the life of me,” writes Doctorow, “I can’t figure out a legal principle that would apply to the robot that wouldn’t be useful for the computer (and vice versa).”

In my view, the difference between a computer and a robot has largely to do with the latter’s embodiment. Robots do not just sense, process, and relay data. Robots are organized to act upon the world physically, or at least directly. This turns out to have strong repercussions at law, and to pose unique challenges to law and to legal institutions that computers and the Internet did not.

Consider, for example, how tort law handles glitches in personal computers or how law in general handles unlawful posts on a social network. If Word freezes and eats your important white paper, you may not sue Microsoft or Dell. This is due to a very specific set of legal principles such as the economic loss doctrine. But the economic loss doctrine, by its terms, is not available where a glitch causes physical harm. Similarly, courts have limited liability for insurers for computer or software glitches on the basis that information is not a “tangible” good covered by a general policy. A federal law, meanwhile, immunizes platforms such as Facebook for much of what users do there. It does so rather specifically by disallowing any legal actor from characterizing Facebook as the “publisher” of “content” that a user posts. This includes apps Facebook might run or sell. The same result would not likely obtain were someone to be hurt by a drone app purchased from a robot app store.

In any event, Doctorow’s thesis does not necessarily cut against the idea of a Federal Robotics Commission. We might say that robots are just computers, but that computers today are more powerful and complex, and increasingly organized to act upon the world in a physical or direct manner without even the prospect of human intervention. Few in government, especially on the civilian side, understand this technology well. Accordingly, the latent need for a neutral government body with deep expertise on how to deal with cyber physical systems has become quite acute.


I was recently at a robotics conference at the University of California, Berkeley and a journalist, who is a long-time student of robotics and one of its most assiduous chroniclers, made a remark to a colleague that struck me. He said that in recent years robotics has felt like a tidal wave, looming somewhere in the distance. But in recent months, that wave seems to have touched down upon land; keeping up with developments in robotics today is a frantic exercise in treading water.

Our government has a responsibility to be prepared for the changes robotics already begins to bring. Being prepared means, at this stage, understanding the technology and the unique experiences robots allow. It means helping other institutions make sense of the problems the technology already creates. And it means removing hurdles to development of robotics which, if not addressed, could seriously compromise America’s relevance in robotics and the development of its technology sector.

There are a number of ways our government could go about achieving these goals. I have explored one: the establishment of a federal robotics agency. We have in the past formed formal institutions around specific technologies, for the obvious reason that understanding a technology or set of technologies requires a dedicated staff, and because it can be more efficient to coordinate oversight of a technology centrally. I do not argue we should go so far as to put into place, today, a full-fledged enforcement body capable of regulating anything that touches robotics. That would be deeply inadvisable. Rather, I believe on balance that we should consider creating an institutional repository of expertise around robotics as well as a formal mechanism to promote robotics and artificial intelligence as a research agenda and industry.

The time to think through the best legal and policy infrastructure for robotics is right now. Early decisions in the lifecycle of the Internet, such as the decision to apply the First Amendment there and to immunize platforms for what users do, allowed that technology to thrive. We were also able to be “hands off” about the Internet to a degree that will not be possible with robotics and systems like it that are organized not merely to relay information but to affect the world physically or directly. Decisions we make today about robotics and artificial intelligence will affect the trajectory of this technology and of our society. Please think of this piece, if you do, as a call to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and deliberate in our dealings with this emerging technology.

This piece originally appeared on Brookings, as part of a Brookings series called The Robots Are Coming: The Project on Civilian Robotics.

Ryan Calo is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a former research director at The Center for Internet and Society. A nationally recognized expert in law and emerging technology, Ryan’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Wired Magazine, and other news outlets.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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