The robots are no longer coming; they are here. And the law's response has been lacking. Many believe that the Federal Aviation Administration has overstepped its authority in regulating drones. Lawsuits imply that the Food and Drug Administration could have done more to vet robotic surgery. Nevada—the first state to pass a driverless car law—had to repeal its definition of autonomous driving and write a new one.
What is the best approach for integrating this transformative technology? We cannot know for sure. That is why we need a federal agency to help figure it out.
Important technologies have led to the formation of new agencies in the past. Trains did. Radio led to the Federal Radio Commission, which became the Federal Communications Commission. The Internet has no federal agency as such, but two governing bodies supervise its unique architecture. Why not robotics? It would go against precedent to not have a federal robotics agency.
The need for such an agency is already clear. I have mentioned the problems that the FAA, the fda and the state of Nevada have had with robotics. Other examples abound. The fcc has been trying for more than 10 years to figure out whether it would be safe for people to use efficient, artificially intelligent radios that can change the frequency and power at which they broadcast. The Securities and Exchange Commission has been looking at high-speed trading algorithms—robots of the market, if you will—since they briefly crashed the stock exchange a few years ago. The agency still has no idea what to do about them. When Congress charged the Department of Transportation with determining whether a software glitch caused certain Toyotas to “suddenly accelerate,” the agency had to call in nasa—which can take only so many breaks from putting robots on Mars to look at a sedan.
A big part of the problem is that the government lacks expertise in robotics, and because of its piecemeal approach to the subject, it is not accruing that expertise fast enough. Agencies, states, courts and others are not talking to one another about these issues. Government entities fail to see common themes in different technologies: drones, for instance, rarely come up in discussions of driverless cars even though they present similar issues of safety, privacy and psychological unease.
A “Federal Robotics Commission” could help. Such a body should not “regulate” robots in the sense of fashioning rules that roboticists or others must follow. That would be premature. Rather the commission would be organized to support and advise.
This past fall I wrote a Brookings Institution white paper, “The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission,” explaining how this agency could operate. In broad strokes: it could coordinate basic robotics research in an attempt to solve the still considerable technical challenges this technology presents. It might advise other federal agencies on matters involving 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 consumer products. A robotics agency could play a similar advisory role for lawmakers and even the courts. Finally, it could convene stakeholders from industry, government, academia and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on society.
There would be other benefits. Today the government has a hard time hiring engineering talent away from academia or industry. A robotics agency would be well placed to attract technologists who might be reticent to work for the government otherwise. The U.S. has consciously cultivated a “best and brightest” approach to recruitment in the past—which is why, when faced with a tough technical challenge, the dot found the people it needed at NASA.
Government agencies in Japan and Europe are already playing a central role in robotics. The European Union, for example, has commissioned a consortium of experts to develop comprehensive legal and policy guidelines. The U.S. should follow suit. If we fail to think about proper legal and policy infrastructure now, robotics could be the first transformative technology since steam in which America has not played a preeminent role.