The Path of Robotics Law

16 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2015 Last revised: 4 Jun 2015

Date Written: May 10, 2015


This essay, written as a response to Ryan Calo's valuable discussion in "Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw," describes key problems that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) agents present for law.

The first problem is how to distribute rights and responsibilities among human beings when non-human agents create benefits like artistic works or cause harms like physical injuries. The difficulty is caused by the fact that the behavior of robotic and AI systems is "emergent;" their actions may not be predictable in advance or constrained by human expectations about proper behavior. Moreover, the programming and algorithms used by robots and AI entities may be the work of many hands, and may employ generative technologies that allow innovation at multiple layers. These features of robotics and AI enhance unpredictability and diffusion of causal responsibility for what robots and AI agents do.

Lawrence Lessig's famous dictum that "Code is Law" argued that combinations of computer hardware and software, like other modalities of regulation, could constrain and direct human behavior. Robotics and AI present the converse problem. Instead of code as a law that regulates humans, robotics and AI feature emergent behavior that escapes human planning and expectations. Code is lawless.

The second problem raised by robotics and AI is the "substitution effect." People will substitute robots and AI agents for living things — and especially for humans. But they will do so only in certain ways and only for certain purposes. In other words, people tend to treat robots and AI agents as special-purpose animals or special-purpose human beings. This substitution is likely to be incomplete, contextual, unstable, and often opportunistic. People may treat the robot as a person (or animal) for some purposes and as an object for others. The problem of substitution touches many different areas of law, and it promises to confound us for a very long time.

Finally, the essay responds to Calo's argument about the lessons of cyberlaw for robotics. Calo argues that lawyers should identify the "essential characteristics" of robotics and then ask how the law should respond to the problems posed by those essential characteristics. I see the lessons of cyberlaw quite differently. We should not think of essential characteristics of technology independent of how people use technology in their lives and in their social relations with others. Because the use of technology in social life evolves, and because people continually find new ways to employ technology for good or for ill, it may be unhelpful to freeze certain features of use at a particular moment and label them "essential characteristics." Innovation in technology is not just innovation of tools and techniques; it may also involve innovation of economic, social and legal relations. As we innovate socially and economically, what appears most salient and important about our technologies may also change.

Keywords: Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Cyberlaw, Law and Technology, Torts, Criminal Law, Responsibility, Substitution Effect

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M., The Path of Robotics Law (May 10, 2015). California Law Review, Forthcoming, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 536, Available at SSRN:

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

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