Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sad Trombone


I have to admit, I was a little bit excited when I saw that Coeur d'Alene was passing an ordinance about robots. I thought, "Wow, the city government is really thinking forward. They are willing to step out and try something innovative for the progress of the city."

Then I read the ordinance. 

1) A robot must not harm human beings, other living creatures or property, or, by inaction, allow human beings, other living creatures or property to come to harm.
2) A robot must not injure a human being, other living creatures or property, or, through inaction, allow a human being, other living creature or property to come to harm.
3) A robot must not carry weapons, attack living creatures or cause damage to personal or real property.
4) Humans may not intentionally interfere with or harm a robot unless the robot poses a reasonable threat of causing harm to any living creature or damage to personal or real property.
5) Robots may not photograph or record, in any manner, any human being on private property or any private property without the express consent of the human being(s) or the owner(s) of the property.
There is also a licensing requirement:
1) All robots weighing 100 pounds or more or any robot operating on public property must be licensed with the city of Coeur d'Alene City Clerk and a license fee paid. The license fee shall be set by City Council by resolution.
Waaaa waaaa whaaaaaaaaaa...

What I thought might be a simple, well thought out ordinance that helped lay the groundwork for safe and appropriate robot development in our area amounted to a poorly worded, ill-informed, legally questionable, ethically naive, publicity stunt. I mean, I knew as soon as I saw the headline that this was a publicity stunt. I just hoped that the intention was something more than to make a headline. All this really does is relieve me of the need to take those who passed this seriously.

In case the stupidity of this ordinance isn't immediately evident I'll point out just a few problems.

  1. What is a robot? Do remote controlled devices count? Like camera-equipped quadricopters? Like traffic cameras? How about a car with cruise control? That would be more than 100 pounds. Perhaps it only refers to autonomous robots. Who knows?
  2. What if a robot lacks the ability to prevent a human being or other living creature to come to harm or even know what harm means?
  3. Why can't humans interfere with or harm a robot? What if I want to reprogram my robot (against its wishes) or use it for target practice? Surely that is interference. Maybe they just meant other people's robots.
The license for operating on public property is actually not a terrible idea, but without a definition for what constitutes a robot it is very troublesome to think how this might be applied. The stated goal was to let the world know that this is a place of innovation. What it actually does is let the world know that whatever the citizens might be doing with technology the council doesn't really "get it." My only hope is that they thought this was a big joke. Maybe they heard about robots and laughed and said, "Robots? Yeah right. Next thing you know we'll have to make up a speed limit for those motorized carriages!"

I wonder if they put just as much thought into the sexual orientation ordinance passed last year. It makes about as much sense.