Robots to get legal recognition as Europe votes to classify them as ‘Electronic persons’

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

The move by the EU to classify robots as “Electronic persons” is a watershed moment. It signifies a significant attitude shift in policy and the way that new robo-systems are viewed, and paves the way for new laws and new regulations.

 

With robots and robo-systems increasingly at the forefront of the news and people’s thoughts European Members of parliament (MEPs) voted last week to propose granting robots with a legal status that would see them officially, and legally, classified as “Electronic Persons.” The EU also warned that new legislation is needed, quickly, to focus on how machines can be held responsible for their “acts or omissions.”

 

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The matter of how to manage and legislate the rising robot revolution has been high on national agendas for the past year but we’ve seen an increased sense of urgency and a surge in national activity over the past six months. In October last year the White House released its official report into artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on society alongside another report that investigated ways, including Universal Basic Income (UBI) schemes like the ones already being piloted in Canada, Finland, and Scotland, to reduce the impact of increasing levels of joblessness and automation as machines increasingly compete with humans for jobs.

In December last year we also saw the UN, for the first time, announce it will debate banning killer robots as early as April this year, and as new robo-systems, that are capable of self-learning – from autonomous vehicles and autonomous robots to autonomous weapons platforms become increasingly prevalent you could easily argue that this debate is wildly overdue.

A draft report which preceded the vote, which was tabled by Mady Delvaux-Stehres, a socialist MEP from Luxembourg, stated that the current rules that are in place are insufficient for the technological revolution ahead and recommended that the EU establishes “basic ethical principles to avoid potential pitfalls,” as quickly as possible.

Delvaux-Stehres’s resolution was passed unanimously by the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee, and a vote by the full parliament on the resolution, will take place this February.

 

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The report also highlighted  that robots and other artificial intelligence machines, such as androids, bots, and drones are set to “unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched.”

“The more autonomous robots are, the less they can be considered simple tools in the hands of other actors (such as the manufacturer, the owner, the user, etc.),” it said, “this, in turn, makes the ordinary rules on liability insufficient and calls for new rules which focus on how a machine can be held – partly or entirely – responsible for its acts or omissions. As a consequence, it becomes more and more urgent to address the fundamental question of whether robots should possess a legal status.”

Following the committee vote on her measure, Delvaux-Stehres reiterated the need for a legal framework for robots, saying: “A growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics. In order to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework.”

As new robo-systems get better, and more accepted by industry and society, the sales of robots have soared, particularly in China who are busy transforming their swollen manufacturing sector, and patent filings for robotics technology have tripled over the past decade.

 

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