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Open Robotics

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Robotics is poised to be the next transformative technology. Robots are widely used in manufacturing, warfare, and disaster response, and the market for personal robotics is exploding. Worldwide sales of home robots—such as iRobot’s popular robotic vacuum cleaner—are in the millions. In fact, Honda has predicted that by the year 2020, it will sell as many robots as it does cars. Microsoft founder Bill Gates believes that the robotics industry is in the same place today as the personal computer (“PC”) business was in the 1970s, a belief that is significant given that there are now well over one billion PCs—just three decades after their introduction into the market.

Like today’s PCs, tomorrow’s personal robots will have operating systems and run software. They will be able to connect with one another and to the Internet, and the hope is that they will be capable of a wide variety of tasks limited only by end-user imagination. But unlike PCs, personal robots will have “actuators” that enable physical interaction with the external world.

Many discussions of robotics and the law focus on legal responsibility for autonomous agents or on the possibility of robot rights. That is not my focus here. In this Article, I will advance several hypotheses about the commercial prospects of robotics in the United States. I will argue that to fulfill its enormous promise personal robotics must be sufficiently “open” to third party innovation and that paving the way toward such openness may require modest legal intervention.

In Part II, I will briefly describe a recurrent theme in cyberlaw scholarship, namely the suggestion that openness of various kinds leads to greater innovation. In Part III, I will present two visions of personal robotics, one “closed” and the other “open.” By “closed,” I mean that the robot has a set function, runs only proprietary software, and cannot be physically altered by the consumer. The popular Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and the first Artificial Intelligence roBOt (“AIBO”) mechanical pet are closed in this sense. By “open,” I mean nondedicated use, nondiscriminatory software, and modular design. The Swiss-designed e-puck robot is a paradigmatic example of an open robot. It has no predetermined function (aside from the general goals of education and research), runs third party open source software, and can be physically altered and extended without compromising performance.

Open robotics, I will argue, could lead to rapid innovation and growth within the personal robotics sector, just as open computers contributed to the success of personal computing. Closed robotics, however, will move forward more slowly as companies design—and some consumers purchase—a series of robot appliances, each dedicated to a particular task. No secondary professional market for software or hardware can accompany an entirely closed robotics industry.

Many contemporary technologies, including telephones, televisions, computers, and the Internet, have thrived despite well-documented hurdles to openness. In Part IV, I will predict that open robotics will confront an additional hurdle: the potential for crippling legal liability, which may lead entrepreneurs and investors to abandon open robots in favor of robots with more limited functionality. This possibility flows from a key difference between computers and robots. Although robots, like computers have no set function, robots are in a position to cause physical damage and injury directly, which computers cannot do.

Finally, in Part V, I will propose a tentative compromise between the need to foster innovation and the need to incentivize safety. Specifically, I will argue that Congress should shield manufacturers and distributors of open robotic platforms from suit for what consumers do with their personal robots, just as it immunizes gun manufacturers from suit for what some people do with guns and websites operators for what users upload and post. A selective immunity would give open robotics some breathing room until industry standards, norms, or other solutions emerge. In this Part, I will also briefly explore the possibility of a small-scale market for individual robot insurance, with rates and premiums calibrated to the robot’s capacity to cause harm.

The time to think through this problem is now. Roboticists and investors are already making decisions that will determine the fate of the personal robotics industry in the United States. Indeed, the first multipurpose robots have already hit the commercial market. Meanwhile, other countries have already recognized the enormous promise of personal and service robots, and as a result they have increased investment and set aggressive goals. By taking a wait and see approach, the United States risks missing out on this decade’s transformative technology.



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