Robotics includes not only robots and artificial intelligence (“AI”), but also bots, drones, autonomous vehicles. This area raises ethical and legal questions which must be addressed now at a supranational level, especially since robotics is already present in a number of industries, such as the automotive and electronics industries.
The resolution of the Parliament stresses the necessity to define an ethical framework around the development, programming and use of robots, to define a legal framework around robotics to allow a harmonised and legally secured development, and to define new legal liability principles for actions performed by smart robots.
1. An ethical framework based on Asimov’s laws of robotics
Good science fiction has often been predicting the evolution of technology and society. Numerous technology tools appear in our daily environment which are directly inspired from communication “gadgets”, from the Star Trek saga (smart phones and connected things), to motion pictures such as Minority Report and Moneyball (predictive analysis), or 2001, A Space Odyssey and I, Robot (smart robots). (2)
Prior to these movies, Isaac Asimov, the famous 20th century science fiction writer, set down the three laws of robotics governing the relationship between man and robot:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. (3)
These laws have inspired the members of the European Parliament to establish the foundation of their recommendations on a preliminary draft of European civil law on robotics, reminding “the intrinsically European and universal humanistic values that characterise Europe’s contribution to society”. These laws are directed primarily at the designers, producers and operators of robots.
Based on these principles, the European Parliament recommends to develop a clear, precise and efficient ethical framework applicable to the design, development, production, use and modification of robots.
Robots must serve humanity especially by performing repetitive, difficult or dangerous tasks. But robotics, through its social, medical and bioethical implications also comes with societal risks for humans, including in the areas of liberty, safety, health, privacy and personal data protection, integrity and dignity.
This resolution takes a practical approach by integrating a Charter on robotics comprised of a Code of ethical conduct for robotics engineers, a Code for research ethics committees (REC), and licences for designers and for users.
The Code of ethical conduct for robotics engineers covers all R&D activities and recalls the strict obligation for researchers and designers to respect the dignity, privacy and safety of humans. This ethical framework should be based on principles of beneficence (robots should act in the best interests of humans), non-maleficence (robots should not harm a human), autonomy (the capacity to make an informed, un-coerced decision about the terms of interaction with robots), and justice (fair distribution of the benefits associated with robotics; affordability of homecare and healthcare robots). The Code also defines principles of fundamental rights, rights of precaution, transparency, safety, reversibility and privacy.
The Code for research ethics committees (REC) stresses the principle of independence to avoid conflicts of interest between the researchers and those reviewing the ethics protocol, and between the reviewers and the organisational governance structures. The Code also defines the role and constitution of a research ethics committee and monitoring rules.
2. The foundations of a legal framework- to define the notion of “robot” and support the development of cyber technology
The resolution also includes several recommendations aimed at setting the ground rules of a harmonised European legal framework adapted to robotics. Such legal rules must permit the cross-border use of robots (principle of mutual recognition), thereby avoiding fragmentation of the European market.
- The notion of “smart robot”
The Parliament calls on the Commission to propose common definitions within the European Union regarding the notions of cyber physical systems, autonomous systems and autonomous and smart robots, and their sub-categories. A “smart robot” would include the following characteristics:
. the acquisition of autonomy through sensors and/or by exchanging data with its environment (inter-connectivity);
. self-learning capacity from experience and by interaction;
. at least a minor physical support;
. the capacity to adapt its behaviour and actions to its environment; and
. absence of life in the biological sense.
A Community system of registration for certain “advanced” categories of robots could be created for purposes of traceability.
- Intellectual property rights
The Parliament draws attention to the necessity to address the issue of intellectual property rights in robotics through a horizontal and technologically neutral approach applicable to the different sectors in which robotics could be used.
- Right to privacy and personal data protection
Extending the right to privacy and personal data protection to the relationship between humans and robots is fundamental. Indeed, the robots used by individuals in a domestic environment (autonomous vehicles, domestic robots, care robots and medical robots) will collect and process personal data. These robots will usually be connected, making it easy to analyse and shared the data collected.
The Community rules on the right to privacy as well as the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), especially the rules regarding systems security, must be extended to robotics. However, such rules must be complemented, where necessary, to take into account the specificities of robotics.
- Standardisation, safety and security
The development of robotics includes the creation of technical standards that must be harmonised internationally to avoid dividing up the European market, and foster a high level of product safety and consumer protection. Communication between robots shall also require the adoption of open and interoperable standards.
To avoid the fragmentation of the European market, testing, certification and market approval in a Member State should be recognised in the rest of the EU.
- Education and employment
The development of the use of robots will create a new industrial and societal revolution. Even though its actual impact on employment is not fully known, less skilled jobs will be more severely affected as well as labour-intensive industries. Automation will lead to more flexibility of skills. For that matter, the Parliament calls on the Commission to monitor medium and long-term job trends as a result of the increased use of robots, and to support education to digital skills so as to align the job market with the demand.
Finally, the Parliament recommends the creation of a designated EU Agency for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence to provide its technical, ethical and regulatory expertise at the Community and National levels.
3. The issue of legal liability: can an autonomous robot be considered as a person responsible for its actions?
An autonomous robot (having the ability to adapt and learn) can make decisions and implement them independently, which means that its behaviour includes a level of unpredictability. Such autonomy is however merely technical. Also, the more autonomous a robot is, the less it can be considered as a simple tool controlled by a human (manufacturer, operator, owner). Therefore, a specific status - the electronic person - could be created for autonomous robots.
The current legal liability rules are not adapted to autonomous robots, which cannot be held liable in case of damages caused to a third party. Under the current state of the law, humans are liable, i.e. the manufacturer (product liability), the operator, the owner or the user of the robot (liability for damages).
The Parliament calls for the Commission to review liability laws to determine the regime that will be more adapted to this matter, i.e. either a regime of strict liability (ability to prove the damage, the defect in the robot and the causality between the defect and the damage), or a liability regime based on risk management (ability to manage risk and its consequences).
The liability of the parties involved should be proportional to the level of instructions given to the robot and its degree of autonomy (the greater the robot’s autonomy, the greater the responsibility of its trainer). In parallel, a specific insurance system for robots should be created.
As a conclusion, this resolution by the European Parliament manages to provide practical orientations about a very complex matter, especially since we don’t yet know the full extent of the impacts of robotics on our society. This document provides a good overview of the issues raised by robotics. This resolution draws the major trends of a legal framework with a purpose to secure the development of robotics and of its multiple uses. It lays necessary ethical foundations and tries to contain fears related to the consequences of an uncontrolled development of AI. The ball is now in the camp of the European Commission to propose a directive within a reasonable timeframe so that Europe is not overtaken by the evolution of robotics which is happening very fast.
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(1) “European Parliament resolution of 16 February 2017 with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics” (2015/2103(INL))
(2) These movies are mostly adapted from books: Minority Report (by Philip K. Dick, published in 1956!); Moneyball (The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis, published in 2003); I, Robot (by Eando Binder, published in 1939 and re-written by Isaac Asimov in 1950)
(3) Asimov’s three laws of robotics appear in “Runaround”, published in 1942.
Deleporte Wentz Avocat