We Robot 2012 Conference at UM Plans for Violent Machine Uprising

The year: a not-too-distant future. The place: a dark Miami-Dade alley. The crime: A police robot, built and programmed to recognize wanted criminals, mistakes an innocent teenager for a fugitive. As the teen flees in terror, the machine shoots to kill.

Who's responsible? The cops who deployed the killer device? The company that built it? The programmers who messed up the facial-recognition software?

It might sound like the plot of a third-rate Isaac Asimov knockoff, but to University of Miami law professor A. Michael Froomkin, the prospect of killer robots terrorizing society is all too real. Froomkin is so worried, in fact, he has organized a world-class group of robot experts to descend on Coral Gables this week to answer some terrifying questions. (Such as this one, straight from the We Robot 2012 brochure: "When is killing by a robot a war crime?")

"Robotics today is like the Internet was 25 years ago," Froomkin says. "The difference is that robots can hurt people directly."

Froomkin, a Cambridge- and Yale-educated attorney who favors bow ties, has been at the cutting edge of Internet law. The problem with the web then and robotics today, he says, is that engineers are blind to problems that can happen when their inventions hit the real world. Just as the Internet has jumbled copyright law, robots will drastically reshape society within a few decades, he says.

Example: Scientists create a mechanical leg for war vets that's powered by thought alone. War vet talks to a really annoying person. Vet thinks, This guy needs a foot up his ass. Suddenly, the leg kicks the guy in the balls.

"Who's to blame?" Froomkin asks. "Right now, we have no legal framework for that situation."

As the Obama administration announces national robotics initiatives, and police forces — including Miami-Dade's — adopt unmanned aerial drones, it's not difficult to imagine robots infiltrating society, from the hospital to the jailhouse. Froomkin's conference brings together experts from around the globe to tackle panels such as "Sex Robots and the Roboticization of Consent" and "Confronting Automated Law Enforcement."

"We aren't going to emerge with any answers. It's far too early for that," Froomkin says. "But hopefully we can get a broad spectrum of the community to at least think about these questions."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink