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Robot Rights

9th March 2017

By Sofia Syed, Senior Associate, Employment. 

You would be forgiven for thinking this is an early April Fools article! It’s not. It is a sign of the fast changing times we are living in. We are told that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics are increasingly being employed in different industries globally, expected to surpass human intellectual capacity and are now exceeding boundaries that we may have only previously reserved for science fiction.

Whilst laws in this area are generally lagging far behind the innovations, the European Parliament (EP) is leading the way, by initiating a law on robots and artificial intelligence (AI). The EP wishes to create a robust legal framework in which this new reality can safely flourish to its full economic and creative potential. The EP has made the following recommendations to the European Commission:

  • Definition/classification/registration: of “smart autonomous robots”, taking into consideration characteristics such as their capacity to be autonomous by connecting with and learning from their environment. Some will also have capacity to adapt their behaviour based on their experience and interaction in their environment;
  • E-personality: create a legal status of “electronic persons” for the most sophisticated robots, grant them specific rights and obligations, including to make good any damage they may cause;
  • Labour market: assess the impact of the revolution on the labour market – the creation and loss of jobs. (Bill Gates recently argued that robots that take over jobs should pay a form of income tax!) Labour-intensive sectors are likely to be more vulnerable to automation but there is also potential to liberate workers from monotonous labour thereby allowing them to focus on greater creativity;
  • Agency for robotics: set up a European agency to register certain robots and to supply them to public authorities with technical, ethical and regulatory expertise; to verify the introduction of an obligatory identification and tracking system for drones;
  • Responsibility: establish who should be held ultimately liable for any given damage and the extent of that liability where damage is caused by robots; liability to be proportional to the actual level of instructions given to the robot and of its degree of autonomy; also to establish a compensation fund in addition to an obligatory insurance scheme and there to be no restriction on the type or extent of the damages which may be recovered;
  • Code of ethical conduct: adopt an over-arching code of ethical conduct for the sector’s researchers and designers, promoting respect, dignity, privacy and safety of humans; including ensuring that a human being has final control over intelligent robots (e.g. by emergency kill switches);
  • Privacy: guarantee data privacy/safety and protection against hacking; to ensure the new robotics laws are consistent with the General Data Protection Regulation.

Summary: It is stated that we stand on the threshold of an era where AI will unleash a new global industrial revolution, leaving no stratum of society untouched. You have a chance to consider the legal and ethical issues for yourself and shape the European legal framework as part of the current public consultations. If you have views on the future of robotics and AI, express them before 30 April 2017 and play your part in the future of science (non-fiction). It is most likely that this future is one that we will not be able to escape through Brexit. I look forward to the day that we deal not only with the rights attributed to the self-employed, the workers and the employees, but also attributable to the electronic persons!

The contents of this update are intended as guidance for readers. It can be no substitute for specific advice. Consequently we cannot accept responsibility for this information, errors or matters affected by subsequent changes in the law, or the content of any website referred to in this update. © Mundays LLP 2017.

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