Child running out into road in front of car

Book Review: ‘Robot Rules: Regulating Artificial Intelligence’

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Society urgently needs to address a host of questions about how the law applies to intelligent machines.

Our cover feature in the March 2019 issue of E&T looks at a challenge that society’s been grappling with for centuries, but if anything is more of a problem today than ever before – the way in which accelerating technological progress is always running ahead of a legal system that struggles to keep pace. One of the issues that Chris Edwards focuses on, and perhaps the most pressing, is the need for a legal framework that can deal with smart machines powered by artificial intelligence.

The first few weeks of 2019 have provided plenty of examples of this. A survey by UK motoring organisation the AA found that the majority of people would want the driverless cars in which they were travelling to prioritise saving the lives of children who have run out into the road, even if it endangered their own lives. Just over a third, however, said they would prefer not to give their preference, something the AA claimed highlights the ethical dilemma faced by manufacturers who have to provide their vehicles with ground rules on which to work. In the US, meanwhile, researchers warned that driverless cars would have the incentive to “create havoc” in city centres by cruising around – legally – at low speed to avoid parking charges.

With a few exceptions, it’s easy to suspect that the legal profession often makes as much if not more money out of innovation than those working on technologies like autonomous vehicles ever do. Every collision has generated headlines, regardless of how insignificant the results have been compared with accidents involving human drivers. It’s easy to anticipate the deluge of legal cases likely to follow in the wake of widespread adoption.

The title of Jacob Turner’s ‘Robot Rules: Regulating Artificial Intelligence’ (Palgrave Macmillan, £24.99, ISBN 9783319962344), paired with a cover image of a mechanical hand, suggests we’re in science-fiction territory. Most people’s familiarity with this topic will be from sci-fi concepts like Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics that have entered the mainstream through films and TV. As Asimov admitted, this literary conceit was never intended to work in the real world, but was intended mainly to provide a jumping-off point for stories in which human-like androids were faced with a dilemma or deliberately choose to break the rules.

The real world is much more nuanced than that, largely because ‘robot’ is shorthand for the sort of software-driven intelligence that is becoming prevalent in so many places. In this lawyer’s perspective on the subject, Jacob Turner argues convincingly that thanks to its ability to make decisions independently and sometimes unpredictably, AI is unique in the sort of practical and ethical problems it can throw up.

Focusing on the three issues of liability, rights and ethics, he analyses what happens when machines aren’t simply following instructions but creating their own independently of human operators. Not to mention whether assigning legal responsibility to machines means that inevitably they’ll have to be given their own equivalent of human rights.

A comprehensive trawl through the history of how the law has both driven tech and responded to it, ‘Robot Rules’ culminates in a call for collaboration on an international level to develop new institutions and regulations that anticipate where we’re heading.

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