Service Robots in the Hospital, and the Upcoming ‘We Robot’ Conference at University of Miami Law School

The Wall Street Journal has an article in its Thursday, March 15, 2012 edition titled “The Robots Are Coming to Hospitals.”  Reporter Timothy Hay explores ways in which robots are being deployed to transport linens, laundry, and other things around hospital complexes – which are, of course, often enormous facilities.  (I believe this is an open link.)  I have remarked several times here at Volokh that robotics has a natural place in health care – and, as I’ve said, even more so in nursing than in the operating theater.  (I regard it as the new “plastics.”)  The Journal article seems to agree:

In the next few years, thousands of “service robots” are expected to enter the health-care sector—picture R2D2 from “Star Wars” carrying a tray of medications or a load of laundry down hospital corridors. Fewer than 1,000 of these blue-collar robots currently roam about hospitals, but those numbers are expected to grow quickly. As America’s elderly population grows, the country’s health-care system is facing cost pressures and a shortage of doctors and nurses. Many administrators are hoping to foist some of the less glamorous work onto robots.

This could create a potential bonanza for software and application developers to write new programs for them, investors and industry watchers say. “My guess is that in five years, there will be 10 times the number of robots deployed in hospitals that there are today,” said Donald Jones, a managing director at Draper Triangle Ventures, who is backing privately held robotics company Aethon Inc. “We are just not going to have enough human hands to do all the work.”

These technologies will piggy-back off of many existing and emerging technologies; some of their first and most important roles will be adaptations of technologies developed for warehouse fulfillment centers such as those used by Amazon.  The hospital environment is chaotic – but it is also a defined space, in the way that a warehouse is.  Hospitals are already designed to work with wheeled machines – smooth floors, elevators, etc. The transition to use machines in place of orderlies is a natural step; more interesting will be as other tasks in the nurse’s repertoire also become highly assisted, if not entirely done, by machine.

The direction of robot design in these kind of consumer uses depends in part, as leading commentator Ryan Calo has noted in several important papers, on the requirements of products liability law.  He suggests in particular that a highly stringent products liability law will push in the direction of smarter appliances – but nonetheless appliances aimed at highly specific tasks.  A less stringent products liability law will enable the development of more flexible robots that gradually become multifunctional – closer to Robbie the Robot of science fiction.

These questions and many other related matters will be taken up in an important conference taking place April 21-22, 2012 at University of Miami law school, “We Robot.”  (I am very sorry I did not get off my bottom and propose a paper for the conference – in my case, probably something by Matthew Waxman and me on autonomous weapons systems.)  This will be the place where all the cool people who are “interested in the social life of things” will be.  I don’t know that there will ever be a field of “robot law”; I have doubts that it is needed as a legal speciality as such – but I do think there are, and will be, many legal questions of how robots will be adapted into broader social life.  The Miami conference (current program here), organized by Michael Froomkin, is a place to begin.