March 3, 2015

Regulatory Robophobia

Veronique de Rugy

George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy
Summary

Robophobia exists on a continuum. At the extreme end are reactionaries who indiscriminately look to stifle all that goes beep in the night. They call for swift and pre-emptive regulations to address any imagined safety or privacy concerns, however unlikely. To the extent that they can enact their ideas, their mind-set is guaranteed to slow the pace of innovation, resulting in countless lost opportunities for economic and social progress—and, yes, even consumer safety and privacy. You'd almost suspect that this is their unstated goal.

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This article appears in the April edition of Reason Magazine

The future is here. Driverless vehicles, drones, machine learning, and other emerging technologies offer programmable assistants able to handle mundane tasks and critical life-saving interventions alike. But not everyone is pleased. The digital Arcadia that awaits us is being fettered by the rise of the robophobes.

Robophobia exists on a continuum. At the extreme end are reactionaries who indiscriminately look to stifle all that goes beep in the night. They call for swift and pre-emptive regulations to address any imagined safety or privacy concerns, however unlikely. To the extent that they can enact their ideas, their mind-set is guaranteed to slow the pace of innovation, resulting in countless lost opportunities for economic and social progress—and, yes, even consumer safety and privacy. You'd almost suspect that this is their unstated goal.

Other cases of robophobia are milder, manifesting, for instance, in proposals for new government agencies. In a white paper published by the Brookings Institution last September, Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, calls for a Federal Robotics Commission (FRC). Older agencies, he argues, don't have the expertise to "deal with the novel experiences and harms robotics enables." Furthermore, there are "distinct but related challenges that would benefit from being examined and treated together." Robots, he says, "may require investment and coordination to thrive."

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