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Professor Ryan Calo presents his work on “Robots at Common Law” at Windsor Law LTEC Lab seminar

Monica Carinci Student Writer, Windsor Law LTEC Lab J.D., 2018

On September 21, 2017, LTEC Lab hosted its first event of the year, a talk entitled, “Robots At Common Law,” delivered by Lane Powell and D. Wayne Gittinger Associate Professor Ryan Calo of the University of Washington School of Law. Professor Calo is a leading scholar in the emerging field of robotics law. He is a co-director of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington, an interdisciplinary research group comprised of experts from computer science, engineering, information science, and law. He is also a co-editor of Robot Law, a book on the subject, and a co-founder of We Robot, an annual conference that brings together lawyers and other professionals to discuss the legal and policy issues raised by robotics.

After being introduced by Windsor Law Professor Kristen Thomasen, Professor Calo began his talk by discussing his interest in robotics as a professor and as someone who helps policy makers approach issues surrounding new technologies. The U.S. Government, he says, is very interested in robotics, including driverless cars and drones used for delivery and for surveillance. Professor Calo has suggested that one government agency could be responsible for regulating robotics. He even showed the audience a seal for the theorized Federal Robotics Commission. However, the focus of his talk was not the future of robotics regulation, but rather the history of robotics and the common law.

While the robots of today and tomorrow are much more advanced than robots of the past, a fascination with robots has existed for centuries, and many legal issues involving robotics have arisen over the last sixty years. In his research, Professor Calo looked at every case in American law where robots featured prominently. With the help of research assistants, he identified trends in the case law and picked out a few key cases to share during his talk.

One group of cases concerned “robot performance” and whether robots can perform in the same way that humans can perform. In a case involving large puppets that were pre-programmed to sing and dance at Chuckie Cheese restaurants, the Maryland special appeals court equated these puppets to “embellished juke boxes”, incapable of performance that would attract an entertainment tax. The court found that a key characteristic of human performance is spontaneity, which these puppets lacked.

A second group of cases concerned tariffs paid on robot toys. Toys that represent “animate” life, like dolls, have historically been subject to a lower tariff in America than inanimate toys. Robot toys, even those featuring human faces, were not considered animate in early case law, and the United States Tariff Schedule was updated in the 1990s to add robots to the list of “non-human creatures.”

Another group of cases concerned how robot metaphors were used by the courts. For example, Professor Calo found consistency in how courts referred to robots to describe an individual who was believed to lack human agency (e.g. to discredit a witness, or with respect to an accused having allegedly taken part in the commission of a crime).

While there is a reluctance in earlier case law to recognize robots as human-like or capable of human performance, there exists a social and emotional valence of real robots. Professor Calo noted in his discussion that we are hardwired to react to robots as if they are social beings. As technology advances and robots become more life-like, the issue of whether robots are capable of human function will become more complex.

Robots are still thought of by many as novel inventions, and lawyers may not be aware of potential precedents that exist for robotics law issues. Professor Calo acknowledged that robots of today are much more versatile, complex and autonomous than they ever were before and that this technological progress will generate new issues. However, when asked whether it will be suitable to turn to the old cases, Professor Calo answered that old case law may likely be an appropriate starting point; newer cases will simply be distinguished from the older case law or some cases may be dispensed with entirely.

As a law student interested in the legal implications of emerging technologies, I found it rewarding to learn about Professor Calo’s methodology in approaching Robot Law.  He sought to review all American cases where robots were mentioned in the syllabus and headnotes, and then selected cases that turned on unique robot issues. By first casting a wide net and then being more selective, Professor Calo was able to form a strong foundation for future research in an exciting and emerging area of the law.

Professor Calo’s paper, “Robots in American Law,” can be found on SSRN’s website.

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