The billion-dollar robot question — how can we make sure they’re safe?

The billion-dollar robot question — how can we make sure they’re safe?

Ready or not, the robots are coming. There will be cars driving themselves, with no steering wheel for us to grab. Delivery drones will maneuver around patio furniture and vegetable gardens to drop packages in backyards. Delivery carts on sidewalks will hum along, bringing pizza boxes to our front doors.

These systems will operate without any humans directly keeping an eye on them. This raises a huge question that everyone from government regulators to tech companies and safety advocates are wrestling with. 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?

“This is the most essential question of the whole matter,” said Andrew Platzer, who researches car, aircraft and robotic safety at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s a very difficult question, how you can know for sure that the system itself is actually really safe.”

The emerging presence of robotics is happening in a wide range of disparate fields, so these innovations are largely falling into a regulatory black hole, challenging the way our society is set up to evaluate safety.

For example, should driverless cars be regulated by state DMVs or the U.S. Department of Transportation — both of which lack deep knowledge of robotics? What about military robots — should the United Nations develop rules or should each government go its own way? Some are calling for a new government agency in the United States — kind of like a NASA for robots — because traditional agencies lack expertise in the rapidly emerging field.

“The government itself is not acting as a repository of expertise here,” said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington and expert on technology policy. “I worry quite a bit that government will over-rely on experts from industry because they don’t have their own internal knowledge.”

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