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Integrating Robotics Requires Public Support and Sound Policies, Report Says

Robotics will transform jobs, eliminating some creating others, and the impacts will be inconsistent, all factors that require in-depth research to guide policy responses, report says. | ICAPlants/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Robotic innovations will transform workforce roles, health care delivery, national defense capabilities, space exploration and transportation systems, ushering in changes that require ethical, legal and public policy responses to build public support, says a report released on Thursday.  

Halcyon, a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating human creativity for social good, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science gathered 20 experts, researchers and innovators representing diverse and global backgrounds for four in-depth discussions examining the impact of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence on society and global systems. The Halcyon Dialogues on Robotics began in October 2016 and ended in July.

The sessions led to the “Shaping Robotics Policy for the 21st Century” report that identifies the central issues raised by the advent of robotics and offers recommendations for policymakers, industry leaders, the legal community, academic institutions and the public to consider in shaping public policies to integrate robotics into society.

Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, including Science Robotics, the latest addition to the Science lineup, and Sachiko Kuno, the founding chairwoman of Halcyon, said the discussions were intended to allow global leaders, experts and researchers to explore the interplay of robotics and society and help policymakers develop non-partisan approaches.

“It is our profound hope that through this dialogue, we can help ensure that developments in this exciting and dynamic field take place in a way that advances human dignity and mitigates, rather than exacerbates, tensions in society,” write Holt and Kuno in the report’s introduction.

In opening remarks at the Sept. 28 event marking the report’s release, Holt said that challenges already facing science and engineering are likely to be further complicated by robotic advances, making it necessary that policymakers rely on "better evidence-based thinking" in shaping policies related to robotics. The event included robotic demonstrations and two panel sessions that explored the complex issues raised by rapid advances in robotics from ethical considerations to advances in education that will be needed to expand innovations. The event, held at Halcyon’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., was livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.

The report covers nine topics, including the impact of robotics on work and social justice. It also moves through the design and implementation of robotic systems, ways to build public trust, establishment of robotic testing regimes, approaches to minimize risk, standards to guide the collection and analysis of data by robotic systems, requisite training and education, essential public policy measures and necessary institutional advisory structures to blend robotics into society.

“The field of robotics will transform human life in the 21st century as mechanical engineering, bioengineering, information technologies, artificial intelligence and other contributing fields continue to advance, robotic technologies could become increasingly common in workplaces, homes and public spaces,” the report says. “The resulting societal changes could be as dramatic as those seen in the 20th century.”

In framing the discussions, organizers defined robots “as autonomous or semi-autonomous systems that interact directly with the physical world.” The definition incorporates software designed for robotic systems within the scope of the talks, but excludes software “bots” that can act on commands and do simple tasks from the conversations.

The four meetings, also hosted by Halcyon, took on perhaps the most challenging consequence of robotics: the impact of automation on the workforce – a topic that was explored from multiple perspectives.  

Robotics will change the nature of jobs, eliminating some positions workers now hold – something that the manufacturing sector already has seen unfold – while creating others, the report says. Yet, the scope of such changes remains unclear. Employment related to new technologies is likely to expand, creating new types of work and positions not yet imagined, through enhanced productivity and the growth of the technological sector, the report notes.

Still, to fully assess workforce disruption, the report calls for research to be conducted by institutions such as the National Science Foundation to gauge and measure the full impact of the “human-technology frontier” by examining the social, behavioral and economic impacts of these new technologies throughout the U.S. economy.

Such research should seek to establish how quickly robotics will change the workplace, determine who will be impacted and in what ways and identify the places where such transformations will most likely take place, the report says. Education and training are cited as necessary to mitigate workforce transitions.

“A major question is whether robotics will increase or decrease inequities among groups of people or nations,” states the report, noting that the technologies “could even alter social structures, such as gender roles, as they change what people do in the workplaces and at home.”

The sessions and the report focus on the challenges and opportunities robotics introduce through the lens of the nation’s health care system, including surgical practices, rehabilitative care and home health services, and the public use of robotic devices initially designed for military applications.

In considering the complex issues that arise in health care delivery, the use of robotics by surgical teams was analyzed. An individual surgeon, for instance, can double interactions with a patient using an automated surgical system. Such devices allow very small surgical tools to be used, the report notes, diminishing incision sizes, helping reduce blood loss and shortening recovery periods.

Robotic use in surgical environments also opens a window onto many factors that discussion participants identified as needing further consideration by patients, governments and legal institutions. Take, for instance, the question of where fault lies when things go wrong: Is the physician, the hospital, the robot maker, the software developer or the maintenance crew liable? Will liability protection require surgical procedures to be recorded? What are the implications of such record keeping?

Surgical robotic devices are increasingly being used by surgeons taking advantage of tiny instruments that lessen blood loss and speed recovery, but the technology calls for research and regulations to ensure safety and build public trust. | Senior Airman Jenay Randolph/U.S. Air Force

“Among the most important issues surrounding the use of robots in health care are safety and trust,” says the report, noting that robotic systems will have to be reliable, safe and perform consistently to gain public trust – requirements that extend well beyond surgical theaters.

The use of robotics to deliver rehabilitative treatment offers social companionship and enhanced independence as people age. Telemedicine permits doctors to diagnose patients remotely, reaching people without access to medical offices. Nanorobotics aims to deliver drugs at a molecular level. Already, robots are used to train medical doctors.

On the flipside, such advances introduce new levels of complexity to medical procedures, presenting challenges in assessing risk and likely requiring regulatory and public policy frameworks to keep pace with the technological advances.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for research on how robotic systems can breakdown and which types of organizations – professional societies, industry groups or regulatory bodies – should determine the safety and effectiveness of such systems in the health care environment.

Establishing guidelines governing the maintenance of robotic devices, outlining testing regimes and setting approaches for the storage of temporary records of surgical procedures – something the report likens to an airplane’s black box – are all necessary. Stakeholders should work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other governmental, professional and stakeholder organizations to devise appropriate regulations, the report says.

The transformation of military robotic systems for civilian use offers the potential to assist in law enforcement, disaster recovery, human migration crises and natural disaster responses to wildfires, flooding and earthquakes, the report says. Yet, laws and regulations will be needed to ensure such systems do not impinge on civil liberties, the report says.

A federal interagency body should be established to help set legal, regulatory and ethical frameworks to guide the transformation of military robotics to civilian applications, drawing upon the expertise of the nation’s scientific research laboratories, the report suggests.

Educational institutions and public policymakers will have to find new ways to respond to the wave of technological change and dedicate financial resources to the effort, the report says. Applying the force of big data to help design effective educational approaches and introducing robotics beginning in elementary school can improve the nation’s educational system and protect U.S. competitiveness, the report states.

To avoid stifling innovation, the report notes, lawmakers and regulators should articulate best practices and tap private organizations to set industry standards and guidelines to allow for self-regulation as has been the practice with other emerging technologies.  

“Competitiveness deserves to be a major consideration in public discussions of robotics,” says the report, later adding, “For the United States to maximize its influence and the benefits of its citizens, U.S. companies should provide the next wave of robotics.”  

[Associated image credit: Salford Institute for Dementia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]