From medical equipment to meal-cooking robots. Buzzing drones and self-driving cars. Artificial Intelligence and robotics are steadily charging into our daily lives. A fourth industrial revolution is underway, bringing with it a whole slew of brand-new ethical and legal issues. How well is the European Union prepared for the rise of the robots?
Let’s imagine for a second you’re the owner of a brand new black Tesla. The first commercial self-driving car of its kind. You’re excited but still wary and untrusting of the autopilot. For the first few weeks your hands never leave the steering wheel. But today was rough and you’re tired. You decide to kick back and relax. Unfortunately, your Tesla doesn’t see that other Tesla coming around the bend. You crash. Neither you nor the other driver were technically driving. Who’s paying?
“Up until a few years ago, this situation would have seemed to come straight out of a sci-fi movie.” Luxembourgish MEP and chair of the commission’s working group on robotics, Mady Delvaux laughs heartily as she explains the details of her 2017 report concerning civil law rules on robotics. In it she explains the urgent need for legal and ethical guidelines. “Robots are here to stay. We’re faced with an enormous challenge if we want to future-proof the EU for any legal gaps in time. Basically they’re a new kind of labourer, for which no concrete laws have been drafted yet.”
“The concept of a robot that can think, learn and make decisions on its own provides immense issues in law making.” explains Hub Dohmen, a Dutch private lawyer specialized in IT and technology. “Resolving liability issues, and forming a consensus around that will take quite some debate. In your example alone the answer can go three ways: is it the manufacturer of the physical car, the programmers of the software, or the driver? Who is in the best position to minimize the cost and risk? That debate is still going on.”
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The Delvaux report has been adopted and put forward by the European Parliament in 2017. But now, over a year later, the Commission has yet to issue any proposals towards the matter. The Commission is the only one with the power to propose legislation.
Meanwhile however, the member states can’t afford to watch and wait, spurred on by innovators and potential investors. Germany already has specific laws for self-driving cars. “This makes it harder on the single market to remain judicially equal and creates legal uncertainty for businesses. The Commission needs to propose a directive or regulation, but I fear it’s too already too late for this mandate.” Says MEP Delvaux.
While the EU houses the largest civilian Robotics and AI research and innovation programme in the world (SPARC) at the moment, it remains uncertain for MEP Delvaux whether or not the EU will remain at the forefront of robotic/AI pioneering for long without a legal framework to back it up. Not with projects like Boston Dynamics and various Chinese competitors itching to take their piece of the global pie.
The topic is complex and legislation moves slow to make sure it fills in every crack, but there is no stopping the technology train as Assistant of the International Federation for Robotics’ Statistical Department Nina Kutzbach points out. “We’ve seen record sales of industrial robots for the fourth consecutive year in a row. This year overall robot sales increased by 29% worldwide and according to our projections that number will keep rising for some time to come.”