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Section 230 Analogy To Robotics

John Gregory has this interesting post on robots and the law over at Slaw, a Canadian legal blog.  Like most such posts (many of mine included!), Gregory largely poses questions.   How do we assess liability?  Will we have to recognize robots or artificial intelligence as legal entities?  Etc.

Gregory mentions my argument that we ought to immunize consumer robotics manufacturers for the uses to which consumers put personal or service robots.  I worry that without such immunity, manufacturers will not have the incentives to create the “generative” platforms (to borrow a term from Jonathan Zittrain) that will spark a cascade of end-user innovation.  I use Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes websites for what users post in most instances, as a point of reference.

I agree that Section 230 immunity is not a perfect analogy—while atoms may be “the new bits,” posting information is hardly akin to modifying or programming a robot.  The basic idea, however, is the same.  Section 230 immunizes platforms for the innovative, and sometimes controversial, uses to which users put their products.  Importantly, it also immunizes platforms for steps they take to guard against unwanted content.  The analogy of this latter immunity is to robotic safety features.  Manufacturers should not be liable, at least initially, for safety features or other limits that can occasionally lead to accident instead of avoid it.  (Think autonomous lane correction or passenger side air bags in cars.)

Still, I’m hardly wedded to the precise Section 230 mechanism.  We could look to the immunity small planes receive under the General Aviation Revitalization Act, without which the consumer aviation industry would have stayed bankrupt.  Or we could look to the (more controversial) immunity enjoyed by gun manufacturers for actions taken by gun owners.  Robotics has the potential to transform and benefit society to a far greater extent than small planes or guns.  Yet one or two high profile lawsuits—with understandably sympathetic plaintiffs and uncertain law—could scare away engagement.   We’ll still see robots, sure, but they will only do one or two things.  They will not open up a universe of possibilities, for fear that some of those possibilities will place the manufacturer or distributor in front of a hostile jury.

The point is: robotics is an industry that needs ground rules to flourish.  Those ground rules should contain incentives for consumer robotics to be as versatile, open, and safe as possible.  The alternative is a world-wide robotics revolution that leaves the United States further behind.

Thanks to Robert Richards for flagging Gregory’s post.

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