Legal robo-pocalypse

Legal robo-pocalypse

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One of the most famous science fiction authors - Isaac Asimov- famously created the Three Laws of Robotics. They served as the bedrock for his futuristic classic “I Robot” and a number of other novels that take place centuries in the future and feature complex and sentient artificial intelligence and its interactions with humanity:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Well, the future is apparently now. A cursory review of media and literature over the past few years places us on the cusp of an explosion of technologies where our homes, offices, hospitals, streets, skies, courts, firms, deliveries, and militaries, etc, become increasingly dominated by robots and AI. Unlike our prescient sci-fi writer above, no such formal legal doctrine currently exists in practically any jurisdiction, and technology is exponentially speeding ahead. 

The often cited example regarding self-driving cars is who (or what) makes the judgement call to sacrifice the vehicle occupants’ safety versus the pedestrian? Where does fault or indemnity lie? Where does liability rest when the future pizza delivery drone smashes through your widow instead of politely placing the order in front of the door as a result of weather interfering with satellite transmitted signals and data? Is the law firm, or the tech consultant, responsible when electronically stored client data goes missing or is hacked? How about the friendly robot that greeted me recently at the Microsoft store that patiently and adorably asked me what I was looking for and how it could direct me. It could respond to voice, language, and point me in the right direction. Then I saw children using it as a cup holder and teasing it. If and when this type of artificial individual becomes sentient, does it have rights?   How about the much more serious ethical, legal, and moral dilemma of autonomous military drones and battlefield robots that are currently
being researched.

Encouragingly, science fiction has predicted some technologically transformative innovations over the past few decades (smart phones), and not been so great with others (ahem Internet). Law schools are also starting to offer courses on this topic, and numerous industry seminars and conferences certainly review these issues.  Regardless, one thing is certain: disruption.  The first two major technological revolutions, the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution radically changed human societies, and our legal systems spent decades or centuries catching up. Now with change moving exponentially as part of a third major Automation Revolution (Third Machine Revolution? Robo-Pocalypse? Terminator vs The Lincoln Lawyer?) it is crucial for legal scholars and policy makers to tap into our inner Asimov, otherwise our legal systems will be in for a very bumpy ride.

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