Europe Mulls Rights for Robots as “Electronic Persons”

May 2, 2018

At some point in our lives most of us have run across the Terminator movies and likely heard about Skynet (if you haven’t, it’s an artificial intelligence system, and antagonist, in the Terminator franchise). The Terminator story line alludes to the impending robot takeover. With hours of cinema and several sequels, the franchise devotes itself to preventing such an inevitable future. As more advances come to the realm of robotics and artificial intelligence, we often think about the lessons and dangers that movies depict of advanced artificial intelligence and robotics, causing great consternation of a dystopian future for humankind.

We can take some comfort in knowing that we are not there yet. The rise of the machines is probably a few generations out, but there are many nations and companies working to advance research for A.I. and robotics to make such a future the smallest possibility. For example, Boston Dynamics has created robots that can walk on two legs, open doors, or carry heavy payloads. IBM, collaborating with several other corporations, is finding ways to unite artificial intelligence, big data, and business with their Watson platform. Amazon, Google, and Apple have brought artificial intelligence into consumer homes through their Siri, Google Home, and Echo products. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, use artificial intelligence for improved targeted advertisements and commercials. Moreover, several companies are venturing and promoting wearable artificial intelligence in smart phones, clothing, and health devices. Even Thomson Reuters is looking at the ways in which artificial intelligence can change, and improve, legal services. There is an increasing competition to see which country or company will become dominant in this arena, aptly dubbed as the Next Space Race.

While all these advancements are happening, governments will have to find ways of controlling or regulating these companies and products. This brings us to a proposal being considered by the European Parliament. Europe is taking a more proactive approach should the singularity of human-like artificial intelligence occur. They are considering giving rights and responsibilities to robots today. That may be their way of preparing to stay in the good graces of the robot overlords when they takeover.

The European Parliament passed a resolution that would provide sophisticated autonomous robots a special legal status of “electronic persons.” The proponents of the resolution argue that giving robots rights will provide legal protection for manufacturers, programmers, and owners of robots to claim they are not responsible. Basically, it would shield them from liability from any possible negative robot actions and conduct. You can read the resolution here.

The resolution came about over the ethical concerns of robotic intelligence and liability of their creators if the robot outpaces the input of the creators. The concern is rooted in delineating the liability between creators and the machines. The European Parliament did reject an earlier suggestion for requiring companies to pay a tax or social security contribution if they replace human workers with robots.

More than 150 experts in the field of robotics, artificial intelligence, law, medicine, and ethics are arguing against enacting rights for robots. They sent a joint open letter to the European Commission, which is considering the resolution. They argue that it is improper to absolve makers from the legal liabilities of their creations. In addition, the experts argue that social and ethical concerns for robots can set a precedent to extend greater rights, now only associated with humans, to robots. It may even lead to paying robots as well. In addition, the experts argue that the legal status for robots cannot legally be derived from the natural person model. The experts believe, “Europe should create rules for robotics and artificial intelligence to ensure safety and foster innovation, but not based on a vision of a future ruled by robot overlords.”

Despite these arguments, the Members of European Parliament contend that Europe needs to be ahead of the curve in crafting its own regulatory framework for robotic research and development. Members do not want a situation where other countries are setting standards. The resolution passed with 396 votes for, 123 vote against, and 85 abstentions in 2016. Now this resolution is being considered by the European Commission. The European Commission will consider the resolution in its regulatory framework, but can decide not to follow it. Should the European Commission decide to deviate from the resolution, then the Commission will have to give reasons as to why it did not adhere to the resolution once it puts forth its own regulations.

These are genuine issues of liability, safety, and privacy that all countries and government will have to grapple with in the coming years. And even then, our leaders may be too late. Robots and artificial intelligence are already becoming integrated in our world with only deeper assimilation in the future. Should the Terminator movies prove prophetic and robots do take over the world one day, our European friends may be in a better spot then the rest of the world. Hopefully, along with new robot tyrants, we’ll also have time machines to send someone back to prevent the coming robot uprising.

Image Source: REUTERS/Andrea Comas

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