Robots leaving the cage

Robots. Not a Blade Runner or super-evolved apes– they weren’t movies, they were documentaries from the future. Humanity could face the apocalyptic scenario where robots real turn on humans.

“Robots are leaving the cage now in industrial production,” told a EurActiv event held on September 2016 Staudenmayer, Dirk Staudenmayer, head of unit for contract law at the European Commission’s justice department.

When we talk about robots, we must have in mind not only movies such as ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Terminator’. It exists already in an incredible range of applications, from medical diagnostics to assembly lines of car companies. What is new is that digitisation allows us to connect machines, and that smart robots will interact also with humans. This represent a huge opportunity in terms of efficiency and competitiveness for European companies.

In that regard, robots are at the centre of Industry 4.0. Consequently, the recent discussion about an EU robot law is not science-fiction but indeed highly relevant for the future of European industry. It is positive to see this debate taking place at a European level in a very early stage, since we need a political framework for the EU in a couple of years.

But how to consider robots from a legal point of view is a difficult issue for policymakers. And the answer will have implications for the robot-manufacturing industry and insurance companies covering potential damage caused by robots and workers operating alongside machines on factory.

As robots play a more important role in the EU, moving from manufacturing to healthcare, Europeans are becoming more suspicious of the technology. According to a poll, which was carried out in all EU member states in November and December 2014, two-thirds of those surveyed (64%) have a positive view of robots, down from 70% in 2012, except in Hungary (49%), Cyprus (46%) and Greece (45%). Danes and Swedes (both at 84%) have the most positive view of robots’ role in society, followed by the Dutch (77%) and the Poles (75%). 20% of EU citizens are considering purchasing a robot for their home in the future, particularly in he Nordic countries and Central Europe, but respondents in Eastern and Southern Europe are more hesitant. More than one-third (36%) believe that their current job could be at least partially done by a robot in the future. In four countries (Bulgaria, Poland, Croatia and Hugary) at least half of the respondents thought that their current jobs could be done at least partially by robots. At the other end of the scale, less than a quarter of those surveyed in the Netherlands (24%), Denmark (22%) and Luxembourg (20%) take this view.

The truth is that robots are invading our daily life progressing faster than ever. The most urgent issue to be addressed is to regulate artificial intelligence. Given that it is so difficult to define robots, we have to look at the different applications of robotics, to try to find pragmatic solutions to the problems that may arise. From a legal perspective, liability is the most urgent topic and the application of existing principles if a robot damage to a person.

“If an accident happens, who is liable? Is it the producer, is it the seller, is it the car owner, is it the structure that sends the data to the car or is it the software?”
An option could be that robots come with compulsory insurance, like with cars. Another issues are data protection and privacy issues. Robots cannot work without data and they are connected. Most sophisticated robots could be held partially or entirely responsible for their acts, giving them the status of electronic persons.

One of the scenarios could be to give robots an e-personality. This is a very controversial issue. The robotic community doesn’t agree this solution. An European agency for robotics could monitor and prevent. The agency could be a partner for industry and it could help to build consumers’ trust. There is competition between countries in this field. It could be preferable to interact with a European robot that meets safety and security standards that we can define now, preventing robots from third countries with lower standards from accessing the European market.

US experts are also proposing a national agency for robots. There are common issues and challenges related to robotics even if the applications are different. The agency would not only include engineers, but also ethics experts and sociologists, because the agency will be about the interaction with humans.
Legal clarification on liability – who is responsible in case of damage – was “very important” for the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative and the Internet of Things where objects are connected to each other and share information automatically.

Robots will change the way we work. Some jobs will disappear. The question is how many new jobs will be created by the industrial revolution. Experts are divided. Half of them believe many jobs will be destroyed, the other half argue that many jobs will be created. If jobs are lost, we will have to reflect on how to organise our society, how we finance the social security systems. Nowadays, the main source of tax revenues comes from labour. A ‘robot tax’ certainly isn’t a good idea, neither today nor in the future.

We could do that but we cannot prevent other research in certain area of robotics in non-EU countries. We can try to regulate the EU, but we need to discuss it with the US, China, Japan or Korea, because this is a global phenomenon. That is also one of the reasons for setting up an agency, as it could be the body to discuss norms with the international community.

Mady Delvaux, a socialist and Member of European Parliament, is writing an own initiative report on the stiff rise of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, she warns, “My main concern is that humans are not dominated by robots, but that robots serve the humans.” Mady is calling for a European agency for robotics to monitor developments such as the creation of artificial beings and cyborgs.But there is still much work to be done.

Eusebio Loria