Humans Collaborate on Robotics Policy Issues at We Robot Legal Conference

The University of Miami Law School hosted the 2019 We Robot conference, allowing human attendees to discuss robotics policy issues Photo: Joshua Prezant

April 25, 2019      

The We Robot legal conferences, held since 2012, have always been unique from other robot conferences in its purpose and format. The goal is to foster conversations between people designing, building and deploying robots, and those who design or influence the legal and social structures in which robots will be deployed. This year’s version, hosted at the University of Miami Law School earlier this month, was no different.

The interdisciplinary conference combines scholarly contributions by academics, policymakers, roboticists, economists, ethicists, entrepreneurs, and lawyers from around the globe and also provides a one-day in depth workshop.

Professor A. Michael Froomkin We Robot 2019

Professor A. Michael Froomkin, founder of the We Robot conferences.

Unlike other robot conferences, We Robot authors do not present their papers. Instead, papers are briefly summarized by an expert discussant/moderator, who presents a quick summary and analysis on the paper to initiate group conversation with the audience members, who were expected to read the 15+ committee chosen scholarly papers made available online a month prior to the conference. The conversation – the heart and soul of the conference – then begins with audience questions and comments, followed by a very short response by the author(s), thereby rendering attendees to become as much a part of the event as the people on stage.

“One of the things in many of the We Robot 2019 papers was complexity,” said Professor A. Michael Froomkin from the University of Miami School of Law, who founded the We Robot conference in 2012. “We’re seeing new difficulties that we hadn’t really appreciated before in our initial enthusiasm, and we’re working out schemas to deal with them.”

Delivery robots and public spaces

For example, one subtheme is encroachment by robots into formally safe public spaces such as sidewalks, Froomkin said. This was examined in the paper, “Robots in Space: Sharing Our World with Autonomous Delivery Vehicles (ADVs),” by Mason Marks of Yale Law School & NYU Law School. Sidewalk delivery robots are the newest and fastest growing segment of the industry, and will therefore face the fewest legal and regulatory hurdles. The paper focused on the differences between the laws that regulate sidewalk delivery robots and the laws that govern other types of autonomous vehicles, and proposes legislation to regulate sidewalk delivery robots that will increase their safety and utility, while limiting the privatization of public spaces.

The Best Senior Scholars Paper was awarded to “Through the Handoff Lens: Are Autonomous Vehicles No-Win for Driver-Passengers,” authored by Jake Goldenfein (Cornell Tech); Deirdre Mulligan (UC Berkeley School of Information) and Helen Nissenbaum (Cornell Tech). In response to how the transport models described by technology companies, car manufacturers, and researchers each generate different political and ethical consequences for users, the paper introduced the analytical lens of “handoff” for understanding the ramifications of different configurations of actors and components associated with three archetypes of autonomous vehicles – fully driverless cars, advanced driver assist systems, and connected cars.

“Handoff” is an approach to tracking societal values in socio-technical systems. It exposes what is at stake in transitions of control between different components and actors in a system, i.e. human, regulatory, mechanical or computational.

Other papers awarded

Why the Moral Machine is a Monster,” by Abby Everett Jaques (MIT), won the Best Junior Scholars Paper Award. The paper argued that the Moral Machine, an MIT Media Lab project that presents users with a choice between two outcomes in a scenario in which a self-driving car is going to crash, shows methodological errors, asks the wrong questions, and frames the ethical choices in terms that ensure respondents will fail to make good decisions.

How Robots and Autonomous Weapon Systems are Changing the Norms and Laws of War,” by USMA at West Point Professors LTC Chris Korpela, Major Scott Parsons, Major (Retired) Dom Larkin, and Dr. William J. Barry, won Best Poster.

The entire video of the 2019 two-day conference can be viewed here. Next year’s We Robot will be hosted by the Centre for Law, Technology and Society at the University of Ottawa on April 2-4, 2020.