Ryan Calo on ‘Robots In American Law’

Ryan Calo

Ryan Calo

“Robots again.” Thus begins Judge Alex Kozinski’s 1997 dissent from the Ninth Circuit’s decision not to rehear the case of Wendt v. Host International en banc. “Robots” because Wendt involved an allegation by the actors who played Cliff and Norm on the television show Cheers that a bar violated their rights of publicity by creating animatronic versions of these characters. “Again” because, just four years earlier, the Ninth Circuit permitted another suit to go forward in which Vanna White sued Samsung over an advertisement featuring her robot replica.

Robotics feels new and exciting. Which it is: the field is seeing enormous advancement and investment in recent years. But robots have also been with us for decades. And like practically any other artifact, robots have been involved in legal disputes.

These disputes vary widely, as does the role of robots themselves. Often the involvement is incidental: perhaps a robot figures into a movie plot that results in a copyright claim or a contract dispute arises over robotic equipment.

Other times, however, the robot matters. It could be a dispute at maritime law over who first discovered a shipwreck; a question of whether a robot represents something “animate” for purposes of tariff schedules; or an issue of whether an all-robot band is “performing” for purposes of an entertainment tax on food and beverage service. In these real cases and others, courts have already begun to grapple with the arguably unique issues robots tend to raise in society.

This project canvasses over fifty years of state and federal case law involving robots or close analogs in an effort to predict how courts will react to the mainstreaming of robotics taking place today. The research adds clarity to academic and policy debates in at least three ways:

First, the project retroactively tests one or more theses regarding the challenges robots are likely to pose for law and legal institutions.

Second, the project tends to refute the view that the field of robotics law has no advanced inkling of how law will react to robots. Unlike cyberlaw in the 1990s, which had but little contact with the Internet, American society in 2015 already has decades of experience with robots in some sense.

Third, the project reveals a common mental model judges appear to possess around robots, which is that a robot is capable of acting only as exactly directed. If this view were ever true, it no longer is. Disabusing jurists of the idea that robots are incapable of spontaneity or other, human-like qualities is crucial to the development of satisfying a robotics law and policy.

Ryan Calo will present Robots In American Law on Friday, April 1st at 4:30 PM with discussant Michael Froomkin at the University of Miami Newman Alumni Center in Coral Gables, Florida.

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