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The Billion-Dollar Robot Question--How Can We Make Sure They're Safe?

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Robots will bring tremendous new services to our lives, but we cannot count on them to be perfect.

If robots are driving us around, delivering our meals, baby-sitting the elderly, replacing doctors in operating rooms, and fighting in wars, can we trust them to behave safely?

Credit: Bernd Thissen/EPA

The advent of unsupervised robots raises the question of how to ensure their safety, especially as they challenge traditional methods of safety assessment and regulation.

For example, some are calling for the establishment of a new U.S. government agency to oversee robot regulation, given the lack of expertise in conventional agencies.

"The government itself is not acting as a repository of [robotics] expertise here," notes University of Washington professor Ryan Calo. "I worry quite a bit that government will over-rely on experts from industry because they don't have their own internal knowledge."

Some states are taking the initiative, with California's Department of Motor Vehicles releasing draft guidelines for autonomous cars, but without addressing fully driverless vehicles. Google has criticized the state's move, noting the point of its autonomous cars program is to improve road safety.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation is mainly concentrating on communications signals between autonomous vehicles, instead of determining how safe driverless cars will be.

The University of Michigan's Ryan Eustice suggests the robotics regulatory agency Calo envisions could employ a mix of hardware testing, laps on test tracks, tests in a virtual simulator, and mileage driven on public roads as a way to assess autonomous vehicles for licensing.

From The Washington Post
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