US Needs a New Robotics Agency or the Machine Overlords Will Win … Or Something


Much is lost in the current patchwork approach, Ryan Calo argues.

The U.S. government’s “hopelessly piecemeal” approach to robotics could allow other countries to leapfrog us in innovation, warns a scholar who argues for the creation of a new federal agency.

Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, conceded a "Federal Robotics Commission" would be small by agency standards. 

“Ideally, it would be staffed by robotics experts,” he told Nextgov Monday. “That would be folks who are expert in software, in hardware, in human-robot interaction.”

Calo said he would put engineers and others with backgrounds in mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science right alongside experts in law and policy.

He isn’t looking to regulate robotics, he said.

“The agency would advise on issues at all levels -- state and federal, domestic and foreign, civil and criminal -- that touch upon the unique aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence and the novel human experiences these technologies generate," he said. 

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration is charged with figuring out drones, the Food and Drug Administration is monitoring robotic surgery and the Transportation Department is providing guidance for driverless cars.

“This activity is interesting and important, but hopelessly piecemeal,” he wrote in a white paper published by the Brookings Institution.

For one thing, we’re not having one discussion but many, from which some agencies, states, courts and others are left out.

“Drones come up little in discussions of driverless cars despite presenting similar issues of safety, privacy and psychological unease,” Calo said. “Much is lost in this patchwork approach.”

Calo said he suspects time will only amplify the problems.

“If the FAA decides that it wants to permit drone delivery -- and even if it doesn’t, but if it decides to admit semi-autonomous flight at all -- it’s going to need to certify so-called sense-and-avoid technology,” Calo told Nextgov.

“That’s going to be the next task for the FAA,” he said. “I’m personally really curious about whether they’re going to be able to do it.”

The agency Calo envisions would --

  • Channel federal dollars into research
  • Attract more ace technologists to federal service
  • Advise other agencies and lawmakers on robotics matters
  • Convene domestic and international stakeholders from industry, government and academia
  • File friend-of-the-court briefs in matters involving highly complex interactions between software and hardware.

Calo conceded there are already multiple government entities that do some of these jobs, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Congressional Research Service.

“Yet, the diffusion of expertise across multiple existing agencies would make less and less sense over time,” he said. “If robotics takes on the importance of, for instance, cars, weather prediction, broadcast communications or rail travel, we would want in place the kernel of an agency that could eventually coordinate and regulate the technology in earnest.”

(Image via josefkubes/