Robots. Whether you love them or hate them, they are on the march. Many new consumer robotics products were on display at CES 2017 in Las Vegas, offering personalised help with controlling connected equipment and mundane household tasks. Robots and Artificial Intelligence are increasingly active in industrial fields like manufacturing and warehouse logistics (think Ocado’s new online shopping distribution warehouse, for example) and service contexts like banking.
But there are serious concerns. Replacing human workers with robots and AI in repetitive or dangerous work is a welcome prospect for many. But a 2016 report by Citi and the Oxford Martin School (Technology at Work v2.0: The Future is Not What it Used to Be) gives a pessimistic picture of the future, with many jobs and livelihoods threatened, particularly in poorer countries and regions. Some fear that the widespread introduction of robotics and AI could lead to concentration of wealth in the hands of a small class of successful implementers at the expense of the wider population. And Professor Stephen Hawking has repeatedly warned about the potential for rapidly evolving AI to threaten rather than support humanity.
While there has been a great deal of research and discussion, so far not much has been done to develop consistent and comprehensive law and policy around robotics. South Korea is unusual in having specific legislation. Now the European Parliament has met the challenge head on, voting on 16 February for wide-ranging legislation to be drawn up. The Parliament’s resolution calls for EU-wide definitions of cyber physical systems, autonomous systems and smart autonomous robots. The MEPs propose an EU-wide registration system for more advanced categories of robots under the control of a new Robotics and AI agency.
Legal structures the MEPs identify for analysis and improvement include rules on liability for damage. The current EU system of strict liability for products that cause damage or injury may not be appropriate in a situation where a robot has acted autonomously or under instruction from a user. A compulsory insurance scheme like that for vehicles may be needed.
Concerns in specific sectors are highlighted. MEPs stress the urgent need for a coordinated approach to regulating autonomous vehicles where many issues ranging from safety, energy efficiency, data collection and use to unemployment are brought into sharp focus. As our work in this area has shown, innovators are currently faced with outdated and piecemeal legislation varying widely from one country to another.
In health and social care, the potential for improved support for individuals suffering from dementia or disabilities would be welcome as resources are increasingly stretched, but MEPs stress the need to maintain the human element in the caring professions. Use of robots to support or replace professionals in medical care raises particularly acute concerns around safety and standards, as do cyber physical systems that can be worn on or implanted into the body.
MEPs stopped short of calling for a tax on owners to fund support for workers who lose their jobs or require retraining, to the regret of the report’s author, socialist MEP Mady Delvaux. Although Bill Gates has recently called for policies that address the job-replacement problem – in effect a robot tax.
The MEPs’ vote does not bind the EU Commission to act, but it will have to provide an explanation if it decides not to bring forward a draft law. So this is an important contribution to the developing debate rather than the final word on the subject.