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The death of the boring ol' tech talk 

Before you can call Ryan Calo a robot apologist or alarmist, you'll have to hear him talk

None of this surprises me,” the raspy and deeply masculine voice intones. “Technology got stronger, but we got weaker.”

Sgt. Frank Woods of the U.S. Marine Corps concludes: “We built computers, robots, unmanned armies, but no one ever asked what happens when the enemy steals the keys.”

- DO THE … YOU KNOW:  Ryan Calo will discuss “Robots, Privacy, and Society” on Wednesday, May 23, 10 a.m. to noon, at the Cal Poly University Union’s Chumash Auditorium (building 65, room 205). The talk is free and open to the public. -
  • DO THE … YOU KNOW: Ryan Calo will discuss “Robots, Privacy, and Society” on Wednesday, May 23, 10 a.m. to noon, at the Cal Poly University Union’s Chumash Auditorium (building 65, room 205). The talk is free and open to the public.

Cue drones cruising ominously through the skies above Los Angeles. And mad explosions, of course. It wouldn’t be much of a Call of Duty trailer—Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, to be precise—if there weren’t mass quantities of explosions and testosterone practically oozing off the screen.

Taking a different tone altogether, The Onion posted a video titled “Could the use of flying death robots be hurting America’s reputation worldwide?” An impeccably coiffed newscaster asks, “Is it time to take a second look at our policy of killing Afghan children with missiles shot from terrifying remote-controlled flying robots?” and a team of three “First Responders” debate the issue. Hilarity ensues.

But underlying the tongue-in-cheek humor, there’s genuine distress about where such emerging technologies as unmanned aerial vehicles are taking us. And as the Federal Aviation Administration comes under increasing pressure to integrate UAVs, commonly known as drones, into domestic airways, it’s a conversation more Americans are going to be having.

This is where Ryan Calo—and, specifically, his freebie talk titled “Robots, Privacy, and Society” on May 23 at Cal Poly—might come in handy. As the director for Privacy and Robotics at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, Calo’s the go-to expert for questions about the intersection of technology and privacy. This makes him a busy guy. When John Markoff of The New York Times first learned Google was driving an unmanned automobile on public streets, he turned to Calo and the Center for Internet and Society for insight on the legality of the endeavor.

Patrick Lin, director of Cal Poly’s Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group, tapped Calo as a featured speaker after Calo contributed a chapter to Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics, of which Lin was a co-editor. If all of this sounds intimidating, Calo assures that members of his prospective audience need not have a background in technology. In fact, Calo himself is a technology enthusiast—but hardly a scientist in his own right. He’s actually a lawyer, one who happens to specialize in really cool emerging technologies.

“I feel it’s incumbent for me to keep up on what’s going on. I talk to a team of roboticists. I bought the Springer Handbook of Robotics, which is this $300 ridiculous highly technical book and I read a little … but honestly, that’s mostly for show,” he admitted. “I get Robot Magazine. I listen to this robot podcast.”

Calo reads academic papers but insists that if you can’t talk about something in layman’s speak, you might not understand your subject as well as you might think. He talks quickly, eschewing technical jargon, his words propelled by his enthusiasm for his subject.

As part of his work at the Center for Internet and Society, Calo coordinates National Robotics Week in April, encompassing more than 150 events occurring across each of the 50 states, the wildest of which might be what Calo describes as “a robot block party” in San Francisco. Professional and amateur roboticists alike bring their robots for a kind of geeky show and tell; participants include a 13-year-old girl who hacks Roombas and builds her own robots.

Of course, it’s not all wheelies and party favors. There’s serious debate right now as to whether the robotics industry should operate from an open- or closed-source model (basically whether the software that helps build a robot should be available for free or not). Calo believes that open robots are better for the eco-system, but acknowledges that creates “really interesting liability questions.” This might sound pedantic, but the issues that arise from this debate include the question of who’s legally responsible if your robot malfunctions and damages something.

“When robots go wild,” Calo chuckles, unintentionally arriving at an inevitable subject anytime robots are the subject of a discussion. He’s eager to make it clear that he’s not speculating about future robot takeovers, which is often about all people want to talk about. There’s no denying that we’re fascinated with the vision of a future in which robots are our masters; we’re apparently a species of sadomasochists who seem to enjoy lingering over the notion of a robot overlord cracking the whip. This impulse probably comes from the same mental wellspring as articles about technology titled “The death of (insert word of choice, such as privacy).” Calo reads a lot of these articles.

“I tire of endless discussion of ‘are robots going to take over the world’ because there are so many immediate issues,” he explained.

On the plus side, U.S. policymakers have some history of paving the way for new technologies. Consider the fact that most major Internet corporations are American. Calo credits Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which helped put America ahead of the curve. Under this legislation, if someone is defamed on a website such as Facebook, he or she can’t sue Facebook. It might sound obvious now, but it certainly wasn’t nearly 20 years ago. But emerging technologies have placed us once again in the position of needing to make important decisions.

“If we mess things up—on robotics, for instance—other places are going to eclipse us,” Calo said. “And it’s going to be the first time since the steam engine that America won’t be leading.”

This puts a lot of pressure on lawmakers—pun fully intended.

If all this theorizing seems somewhat circular, it’s because there aren’t any hard and fast conclusions about these technologies. People will have to draw their own. Calo’s goal is simply to get them thinking and attempt to arm them with information that allows them to come to a conclusion that’s comfortable for themselves. But this doesn’t stop them from misinterpreting his bias.

“When I talk, half the time I think people walk away from the talk and they say ‘that guy really hates robots.’ The other half say ‘that guy’s just a robot apologist,’” he said. “I believe that robotics is going to be the next transformer of technology. … I think this is a great technology, potentially, but it presents some thorny ethical and legal questions. If we don’t work them out, we won’t receive the benefits of this technology. … If we deploy them in a way that safeguards people’s privacy, then we can have the best of both worlds.”

Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at

*This article was changed May 22, 2012 to reflect the fact that Calo does read academic papers.


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