Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the UW School of Law, is clear about the significance of We Robot, an annual conference on robotics law and policy. 

“There will be some event in the world involving robots, and everyone will look around and say, ‘Oh gosh! Who’s thinking about this?’” said Calo, program chair for the event. “The hope is that they’ll come to our papers, and watch the video of our conference.”  

Calo and other academics organized We Robot 2015 over the weekend. The two-day conference, hosted by the UW School of Law, featured presentations from distinguished researchers discussing issues of regulation, liability, and ethics of robot technology in the near future.

Among the major themes of the conference was the use of robots in medicine, including telepresence, or remote presence, robots. Some companies like InTouch Health are already selling telepresence robots, which are being used in hospitals. Three research papers discussed the medical use of robots and raised questions, including the issue of what happens to personal liability when direct stimulation of the brain by prosthetics leads to an immediate change in the mood, and possible security issues that will arise if doctors conduct surgeries via telepresence robot from hundreds of miles away.

The researchers further discussed legal issues of patient privacy if hackers were to access the video feed of the operations done through telepresence robots.

There was an overall recognition that the field of robotics moves so quickly that it’s difficult to predict important issues ahead of time, whether it be in medicine or other industries, such as transportation.

“A year ago, the consensus in the room would have been that self-driving cars were several years away,” said Howard Chizeck, a professor in the department of electrical engineering at UW, co-director of UW’s Biorobotics Laboratory, and a member of the conference program committee. “And now they’re here.”

Tiffany Curtiss, a first-year graduate student in law from Seattle University, acknowledged the importance of the conference.

“Robotics is on the edge of the intersection of technology and public policy,” Curtiss said. “There are such emerging technologies that we don’t know what to do with them yet and how the law applies. This conference is phenomenal in terms of being both broad and deep in terms of the topic.”

We Robot also featured live demonstrations of robots, including a visit by a working model of Star Wars’ R2-D2. Tony Dyson, the man who built R2-D2, gave the keynote speech for the conference.

Now in its fourth year, We Robot is heading to Coral Gables, Florida, for 2016, to explore further developments in robot law and policy. 

“There is an excitement in the room,” Chizeck said. “This isn’t a conference, this is a conversation.”


Reach reporter Arunabh Satpathy at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sarunabh

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