Super smart robots need human rights and greater legislation, MEPs say

Super smart robots need human rights and greater legislation, MEPs say

Manufacturers face changing liability laws and a new code of conduct

EU to vote on new rules for manufacturing & design of robots
EU to vote on new rules for manufacturing & design of robots

The European parliament’s legal affairs committee has voted in favor of a draft set of regulations to govern the use and creation of robots.

The committee voted 17-2 last week to pass a report which outlines possible guidelines for this regulation.

On the agenda is the creation of “electronic personhood” for robots, a European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and an advisory code of conduct for robotics engineers among others.

The full house of the European Parliament will vote on these proposals in February. If MEPs vote in favor of the legislation it will pass on to individual governments for further debate.

Long term prosperity but cause for concern

The legal committee’s report stresses the need for changes to legislation around robotics because ‘humankind stands on the threshold of an era when ever more sophisticated robots, bots, androids and other manifestations of AI seem poised to unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched’.

The report acknowledges that this may have benefits of ‘efficiency and savings’ in the short term and ‘unbounded prosperity’ in the long term.

It also says there will be cause for concern when ‘a robot’s code proves fallible’, particularly as many robots will be autonomous of humans when they are installed in vehicles, drones and for care work.

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Impact on manufacturers

The report’s proposals are interesting from a liability point of view, particularly for manufacturers and designers.

It suggests that, due to the increasing ability of robots with AI to learn about their surroundings and adapt their behavior accordingly, the more autonomous robots being manufactured are no longer ‘simple tools in the hands of other actors’.

Consequently, the report’s author states that existing liability rules, which place the blame for a robot’s actions directly with its owner – so long as the behavior could have been foreseen – should be changed as they are now made redundant by unpredictable, autonomous robots.

These changes may require manufacturers to provide access to the source code of their robots so the authorities can investigate where damage is done, as well as the introduction of a ‘kill switch’ to shut down robots that cannot be controlled.

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Falling behind

The report points to the United States, Japan, China and South Korea as countries that are considering or have taken regulatory action concerning the creation of robotics and AI.

It argues Europe must follow suit by implementing the following:

  • A common European definition of what constitutes a smart autonomous robot
  • A guiding ethical framework for the design production and use of robots – this would act as a code of conduct for robotics engineers
  • A European Agency to monitor and regulate the development of robotics and AI
  • An insurance scheme for companies to pay for damage caused by their robots

The report says that all guiding ethical framework should be based on the principles of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, such as human dignity and human rights, because robots’ increasing ability to learn and adapt raises the question of whether they should be considered ‘natural persons’.

Should the bill pass, the author advocates a gradualist, pragmatic and cautious approach to implementation.

Robots with rights “Extremely controversial”

Ashley Morgan, of international legal practice Osborne Clarke, told The Guardian that the proposals will be “extremely controversial.”

“One could argue that, effectively, a law of the nature proposed in this resolution would grant human rights to robots. That’s not going to go down easy with companies that are creating robots and AIs.

“If I create a robot, and that robot creates something that could be patented, should I own that patent or should the robot? If I sell the robot, should the intellectual property it has developed go with it? These are not easy questions to answer, and that goes right to the heart of this debate.”

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