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Rabota, roboti: towards a new definition for a new age of robotics

“The robot is going to lose. Not by much. But when the final score is tallied, flesh and blood is going to beat the damn monster.” – Adam Smith, economist
Writing in the eighteenth century (and no doubt pre-occupied with cultivating modern economic theory), Smith could not have anticipated the rapid evolution in the field of robotics which is re-defining our understanding of what robots are and what they can do.  Once limited to single-task devices like factory robots, modern robotics is moving into a future in which machines make their own decisions and autonomously navigate public spaces.      
Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are often pointed to as offering a serious foundation for the regulation of robots.  But in a world in which the dividing lines between humans and machines have historically been clearly drawn, progress in robotics and related fields like AI is raising challenging moral and legal issues that the Three Laws cannot possibly solve.  How well would the existing legal landscape handle the potential implications of driverless cars and human-brain interface prosthetics?  To what extent can we expect law and regulation to keep step with the inexorable pace of technological advancement?  Who is liable if an autonomous robot causes damage?  Can a robot make legally binding decisions?  How can governance and control of robots be achieved without unnecessarily chilling innovation?
These are important questions that are certain to be explored and debated in the coming years.  Before they can be answered in any sensible and considered way, we should first try to understand what we mean by modern robots and robotic applications. 
"I can't define a robot, but I know one when I see one."
– Joseph Engelberger, roboticist
Engelberger, the industrial robotics pioneer, could instead have evoked the traditional definition of a robot: “an autonomous machine able to perform human actions”.  However, describing as it does a self-determining, anthropomorphised entity occupying a physical space, this traditional definition does not appear entirely relevant to some of the technologies and systems we consider to constitute robots today.  Drones fulfil a human function but require at least some human orientation.  Software robots, or “softbots”, perform complex calculations but do not exist in the physical realm. 
The RoboLaw Project, an EU-funded project with a remit to investigate some of the moral and legal issues surrounding robotics, has identified the following key common characteristics which they hope will help to define what a robot is1:
  • First and foremost, a robot must have a use or task.  By their very nature, robots are made to assist, serve, replace or facilitate human activities.  In many ways, it does not matter what a robot’s use or task is so long as it has one, for without a purpose a robot is redundant.
  • Secondly, it is instructive to ask what environment the robot operates in.  This might be physical or non-physical, or internal or external to the human body. We can say, then, that robots include devices, technologies and systems whether they operate in tangible environments, cyberspace, or some other realm. 
  • Thirdly, the robot’s nature, or the way in which it manifests itself in human life, should be considered. Is the robot embodied, like a bionic system, or disembodied, like softbots? Or a combination of both, like the way in which limb prosthetic robots operate via a brain-computer interface?
  • Fourthly, the way in which a robot interacts with humans (and indeed other robots) when carrying out their function plays a role.  This might involve the way in which they communicate with us, or their proximity to us (physical or virtual).
  • Finally, the level of autonomy the robot has is important to understand.  A robot could be fully or highly autonomous, able to make decisions according to a pre-determined set of rules (think the driverless car able to navigate roads or a drone plotting and flying a course through airspace).  Or it could be less autonomous, more reliant on human supervision or control (think tele-operated systems like robotic bomb disposal devices).
The checklist is less an all-encompassing definition, and more a series of broad umbrella classifications under which a diversity of robotic devices will fall.  It is clear the authors of the RoboLaw Project favour an inclusive definition which acknowledges that any given robotic system or application will sit somewhere on the spectrum of each classification.  A robot need not have human likeness nor occupy a physical space; it may have the ability to learn from its experiences and surroundings, rather than operate strictly to a pre-programmed ruleset.
“... you just can't differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.”
– Isaac Asimov, author
The development of a coherent taxonomy for what we understand robots to be and do will help to shape the moral and legal debate that is already taking place.  When we consider a particular type of robot, we should ask whether it is actually any different from other goods or technologies we currently use to make our lives easier, like a fridge or a word processor.  Some robotic systems, such as robotic prostheses, might be considered to be less like these ‘normal’ goods or technologies, and more like a pet or a child where the owner bears some responsibility for its actions.  Others, like anthropomorphised “carebots” in hospitals or teaching assistant robots used in schools, may appear to blur the lines between humans and things and seem to some as more readily having the same or similar rights (and responsibilities) as humans (and which may require some form of legal personality). 
What is clear is many of the issues relating to, and potential implications of, the rise of robots will be difficult to anticipate, much less answer in a manner which balances the need for legal certainty with the desire to foster innovation.  Bristows LLP will continue to add to the discussion in this area, with articles and seminars with industry experts to come in the near future.  Follow us on twitter (@BristowsLawFirm) to stay up to date or get in touch through our website with your questions and comments. 
1‘Guidelines for Regulating Robotics’ (available here)