Ryan Calo’s “Big Idea”: New Federal Agency for Robots - Robotics Business Review
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Ryan Calo’s “Big Idea”: New Federal Agency for Robots
Aspen Ideas Festival platform for call to action on federal robotics agency
By RBR Staff

It only lasted for two minutes and thirteen seconds (watch it for yourself below), but Ryan Calo’s “Big Idea” at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado is here to stay for a long, long time.

What Calo said wasn’t overly profound; such things are difficult to pull off in two minutes—unless you’re Abe Lincoln, Shakespeare, or a Biblical prophet.


Rather, he was making the kind of common sense that makes audiences nod in surprise agreement and then turn to one another and nod again, which in itself is a kind of profound reaction for an idea from a law professor from Seattle. But, this was Ryan Calo, and he has a habit of getting audiences to react to his ideas in that way.

He has a knack for taking a bunch of complex ideas and turning them into a kind of smooth common sense that is eye-opening, perceptive and very persuasive.

His big idea for Aspen’s 2014 ideafest: “We’re going to need a new federal agency to deal with robots.”

His brief speech was stuffed into a program with some 350 other presenters, all of whom where there to similarly present their big ideas through a series of 200 sessions presented before some 3000 attendees at the Aspen Institute’s campus in Aspen, Colorado.

As the Institute says of its annual event: “The Aspen Ideas Festival is the nation’s premier, public gathering place for leaders from around the globe and across many disciplines to engage in deep and inquisitive discussion of the ideas and issues that both shape our lives and challenge our times.”

A look at the list of speakers for 2014 tells a story in itself of the kinds of ideas that are kicked around each June in the Rockies. Ryan Calo’s big idea was in fine company.

There’s lots of Ryan Calo here at Robotics Business Review: he’s been a buddy and a contributor since we first began publishing. He frequently contributes to our Robots and The Law column, and is always gracious enough to share time for an interview or his latest paper.

One such paper from last March was the genesis for his Aspen big idea. That paper, Robotics and the New Cyberlaw, as well as an accompanying article and a downloadable pdf of the paper itself, flesh out his call for “a new federal agency to deal with robots.”

We tabbed his Robotics and the New Cyberlaw as revolutionary back in March, which got The Atlantic digging through it after his two minutes in Aspen.

“Law professor Ryan Calo believes that robots are soon going to constitute a more abrupt departure from the technologies that preceded them than did the Internet from personal computers and telephones,” wrote Atlantic reporter Conor Friedersdorf.  “Robotic technology is changing so fast, with such significant implications, that he believes the federal government is ill equipped to regulate the society we’ll soon be living in.

“Calo argued that robots aren’t now unregulated, they just fall under the purview of various agencies that lack the expertise to make sound, timely decisions, and who, fearing the unknown, often say “no” to desirable innovations as a result.”

Calo concluded with a sobering thought if the U.S. does not take action in forming a federal robotics agency: “If we don’t, this will be the first form of technology since steam where America did not have a leading role.”

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