We Robot Conference: 6. Manufacturer risk management

29 May 2013

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Q: What’s the main issue that will keep the general legal counsel of a robotics company up at night? A: Massive tort liability. Maintaining that product liability is the number one issue for robot manufacturers, Stephen Wu tackled the subject of risk management at We Robot.

This post is part of Robohub’s We Robot coverage.

Paper: Risk Management in Commercializing Robots
Author: Stephen Wu
Commentator: Julie Martin

Both Wu and Martin repeatedly made the disclaimer that none of this constitutes “official” legal advice, but it’s pretty darn close. This is a highly practical, specific paper with some helpful insights for robotics manufacturers.

The paper starts with applicable legal theories, covering the range of liabilities that companies could face and the consequences thereof. Wu specifically describes the prominent Ford Pinto and Vioxx cases, and warns against giving rise to so-called “angry jurors,” Cost-benefit analyses made by companies are not always taken kindly by juries, especially when dealing with human lives, leading to very large, indemnifying verdicts.

Wu explains what manufacturers can do to preempt accidents and prevent lawsuits. Martin highlighted the advice on being proactive: going beyond what is required and beyond what is industry practice. Not just sticking to the bare minimum will signal that a company is responsible and concerned with safety. Wu also draws attention to some non-traditional risks, saying that [1] information security threats (hacking, data privacy) and [2] supply chain risks (financial fraud, security, reliability) may not be sufficiently taken into account by robotics manufacturers. Further advice in the paper includes documentation, risk management technology, helpful standards and organizations, etc.

In the discussion, Martin specifically brought up the problem of data security, stressing the importance of privacy to consumers. Technologies like telepresence robots, with recorded data, facial recognition, location tracking, etc. raise questions of privacy by design. She suggested that the framework of the paper may also be a good framework for liabilities arising from privacy issues.

There was some discussion of what jurors tend to take into account (facts, reputation, etc.), as well as the question of disclaimers and their limitations. The audience also inquired what was robotics-specific about these liability risks and ways of managing them. Martin and Wu both agreed that the general questions are not necessarily unique to robotics. But Martin made an interesting point that people might have a more visceral reaction to these issues when applied to robots. She said that this may even raise awareness and incentivize desirable risk management behavior that people should be thinking about in other industries but currently are not.

Even if automated cars are twice as good as human drivers, someone asked whether it could be a problem that companies are releasing technology that they know will more directly be responsible for a certain number of lost lives. Wu replied that manufacturers will emphasize not the number of deaths they’re taking into account, but rather the number of lives they’re saving through the technology. Martin added that many other industries have thrived in the face of similar risk management (e.g. pharmaceuticals).

Someone also brought up the development of robots that foster affection in humans and asked whether this might someday give rise to a separate liability issue. E.g. A lawsuit based on addiction to a robot’s affection and the emotional trauma of having that removed. While the audience was audibly amused, Wu agreed that such future scenarios are likely.

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Kate Darling

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