Societal Implications of Robotics Symposium (SIRoS)

On May 1, scholars from around the world gathered for Brown’s first Societal Implications of Robotics Symposium. Two keynote talks by Illah Nourbakhsh (watch the talk) of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and Bill Smart (watch) of the Oregon State University bookended three panel discussions with small groups of leading robotics researchers, economists, philosophers, psychologists, legal scholars, and even representatives of funding agencies. (Videos of panel discussions are available by emailing Read more of the coverage

About the conference

Rapid advances in robotic technologies in the military, medicine, education, and even private homes demand a careful examination of the potentially transformative impact of robotics on society. The transformation could be positive:  providing access to services previously unattainable to many individuals; raising productivity; and enhancing safety and quality of life. But the transformation could also be negative:  restricting access to services to only those who can afford or operate new technology; replacing whole segments of the human workforce; and endangering people’s psychological safety through deceptive attachments to robot partners. This symposium brought together scholars and practitioners from multiple disciplines to examine the difficult questions: What are our obligations to shape this transformation to be positive? How can we contribute to such a positive shaping? And what legal and ethical norms may have to be established to foster a harmonious growth toward a future society with robots?

This May 1st symposium was co-organized by Bertram Malle and Michael Littman, hosted by Brown University’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI), and supported by the Office of the Provost.

The HCRI aims to address the issues and challenges of robotics and society through building on Brown’s interdisciplinary strengths across the physical, life, and human and social sciences.  The initiative is committed to (1) examine problems in society that can be resolved with the help of scientific and technical solutions; (2) advance human-centered robotic technology that enhances quality of life and fosters productivity; and (3) studies the social, legal, ethical, and policy ramifications of new robotic technologies.

Workshop Features

9:00aOpen to the Public!m – 10:30am
Keynote Presentation: Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics, The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University
“Robotics, Empowerment, and Equity”  WATCH NOW
Metcalf Research Bldg., Friedman Auditorium Room 101, 190 Thayer Street
Robotics has left the laboratory and is holding direct societal impact in its sights. In this talk I will evaluate how robotic technology and its interplay with the age of the Internet of Things has affordances for disempowering citizens and creating greater levels of inequity in society. I will also lay a vision for how robotics can be exploited by communities to forge levels of technological fluency that may counteract the more dystopian scenarios I will describe.

10:45am – 12:00pm
Panel Discussion: Economics, Education, and Care
Seth Benzell (Boston University)
Stephanie Holmquist (Holmquist Educational Consultants, Inc.)
Matthias Scheutz (Tufts University)
David Weil (Brown University)
Fox Wetle (Brown University)
Holly Yanco (University of Massachusetts Lowell)

1:00pm – 2:15pm
Panel Discussion: Ethics & Law
Peter Asaro (The New School)
Kate Darling (MIT)
Tim Edgar (Brown University)
Reza Ghanadan (DARPA)
Bertram Malle (Brown University)
Wendell Wallach (Yale University)

2:30pm – 3:45pm
Panel Discussion: Threat of Intelligence?
Micah Clark (ONR)
James Hughes (Trinity College)
Michael Littman (Brown University)
Anders Sandberg (University of Oxford)
Stefanie Tellex (Brown University)

Panel discussions are available for viewing by emailing

4:00pOpen to the Public!m – 5:30pm
Keynote Presentation: Bill Smart, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Oregon State University
“How the Law Will Think About Robots (And Why You Should Care)”  WATCH NOW
Metcalf Research Bldg., Friedman Auditorium Room 101, 190 Thayer Street
As robots and robotic devices begin to enter our lives in the coming years, legislation will be written to govern them. This legislation will typically not be written by robot-savvy technologists but by legal scholars, based on their understanding of what a robot is and what it can do. Roboticists must be careful about the metaphors they use to describe these systems to lawmakers, since the latter see the world through a different lens than roboticists do. I’ll touch on what I call the “Android Fallacy,” the pitfall of thinking about robots as anything other than (potentially very sophisticated) deterministic machines, and what this might mean for future legislative frameworks that affect robots and robotics.

SIRoS Flyer

For more information on the workshop, please email