November 02. 2013 4:28AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Your robot might need an attorney



"ALMOST HUMAN" is coming. Is he a lawsuit waiting to happen?

If you watched the World Series, you were reminded nearly every inning that Fox has a new buddy-cop series debuting Nov. 17 in which one of the buddies is a robot. Not one of those trash-can-and-vacuum-cleaner-hose clunkers, but a handsome humanoid guy with feelings.

From the promo spots, it looks like the only real difference between "Almost Human" and any other show about two cops driving around busting up bad guys is that one of them is a robot named Dorian, and it's 2048.

While we're not partnering police detectives with robots yet, we're already beginning to face the legal issues that will arise as artificial intelligence becomes commonplace.

Whatever "Almost Human" addresses, you can bet it won't include whether you can sue a robot for wrongdoing. Is that android liable for crashing the squad car into a grocery store? What if it performed precisely as it was designed but still wreaked havoc? Who pays?

John Frank Weaver addresses such questions in "Robots are People Too: How Siri, Google Car, and Artificial Intelligence Will Force Us to Change Our Laws," a book slated to be published by Praeger on Nov. 30.

The Portsmouth attorney, who works for the Manchester-based law firm McLane, Graf, Raulerson and Middleton, addresses the intersection of artificial intelligence and the law as part of his practice.

While Siri, Apple's talking personal assistant, and Google car, a self-driving wonder that could allow us to text all we want, aren't walking and talking robots, they are machines that "recreate some aspect of human intelligence or are capable of making a limited type of human decision," as Weaver says in the introduction to his book.

Such low-level artificial intelligence is bound to change the game for our legal system. Copyright law will need to reflect the use of AI programs that can create music and works of literature. Fourth Amendment considerations will be debated as the use of surveillance drones threatens our constitutional protections against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

"Our laws make the base assumption that human beings make decisions," Weaver said last week during an interview at McLane's office in downtown Manchester. "Once you start having machines and widespread use of machines or programs that make decisions for people, you have to change some of the legal models that we use because they don't apply anymore."

Nevada, California and Florida already have passed laws that permit the use of autonomous cars under certain conditions, and several other states, including New Hampshire, have considered them. In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a policy statement about the vehicles that outlines safety and regulatory issues.

While the commercial introduction of self-driving vehicles isn't expected until 2020, auto manufacturers already are incorporating some aspects of the technology into new models. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S550 can drive and steer itself in certain conditions on the highway, according to a recent review by the Los Angeles Times.

In his book, Weaver proposes liability be assigned to the vehicle itself, through a pool of funds generated when consumers buy the self-driving cars. Like Workers' Compensation, there would be a lower threshold of proof but a guaranteed payout that would be capped.

"There are going to be accidents even if the technology performs as it should, and you wouldn't want victims of that situation to be left out in the cold," he said.

Weaver, whose practice includes telecommunications law, said he was inspired to begin researching the technology and the possible legal ramifications after reading an article about Google cars a couple of years ago. He started a blog that led to an article for a law journal, a segment on New Hampshire Public Radio and an inquiry from a book publisher.

The emerging AI technology reminded him of the telecommunications industry in 1989, when it was on the cusp of transforming business and society - and bringing with it a legal practice that is an industry all by itself.

"I thought there is a legal market that will be forming in the next 10 years that is totally empty right now," said Weaver 34. "And if I start thinking about it and writing about it and filling that space as the only person there, I won't get all of that business, but this could be a viable practice 10 years from now, 20 years from now."

After all, even lawyers aren't immune from displacement by technology. Software programs already are on the market that are designed to help people involved in patent disputes find the mostly amenable legal forums based on data from previous cases, Weaver noted.

How much artificial intelligence will displace workers is anybody's guess, but if the Industrial Revolution's factory automation is any guide, it most certainly will. The question is to what degree.

"There's a debate among economists about whether technological changes and advances automatically bring about widespread economic benefits or whether we've just been lucky," he said. "The benefits of the Industrial Revolution were widely spread because of the character of the Industrial Revolution as opposed to a general law that technological change lifts all boats."

The manufacturing era brought with it poor working conditions, pollution, the displacement of farmers and other woes that took decades to correct while ushering in a middle class that enjoyed a higher standard of living than the generation before.

This time, as we've seen with the rise of the Internet, the change will come faster and harder.

"We don't get a century any more. We get 20 or 30 years. If we don't introduce laws quickly enough that maximize the good and minimize the bad, we're not going to gain the full benefit of new technology, and we might experience more of the bad than the good," Weaver said. "The book tries to outlines laws we could change to have these benefits widely spread."

Among humans, anyway.

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or