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New EU rules for the ethical and legal status of robots and AI

New rules for the field of robotics to deal with ethics as well as liability in case of accidents caused by robots are currently being negotiated in the EU.

In February, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution with recommendations to the EU Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics. The resolution was based on an in depth report (DRAFT REPORT with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics (2015/2103(INL)) that delineates core challenges of the evolving field of robotics, including the ethical and legal issues, and provides recommendations for the development of the field in Europe.

Robotics and AI are a fast developing field, and the report urges policymakers to recognise not only the potential of robotics, but also the risks and challenges relating to “human safety, privacy, integrity, dignity, autonomy and data ownership”.

Some interesting points of the report that are put forward to policymakers includes (cited directly or paraphrased):

The EU as a point of departure

Decision makers are asked to ensure that the EU and its Member States maintain control over the regulatory standards to be set, so as not to be forced to adopt and live with standards set by other regions and states that are at the forefront of the development of robotics and AI.

They are also urged to ensure that the intrinsically European and humanistic values that characterise Europe’s contribution to society are enacted in the development of Robotics and AI.

Create a European Agency for Robotics

The report calls for the EU to create a new European Agency for robotics to supply public authorities with technical, ethical and regulatory expertise and a voluntary ethical Code of Conduct to regulate who would be accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts of robotics and ensure that they operate in accordance with legal, safety and ethical standards (e.g. the recommendation for developers to include “kill switches” in the design).

Understanding the data ethical challenges of the field

The report emphasises that there is a need to understand the field in the general contexts of the internet and e-commerce, where aspects of data ownership and the protection of personal data and privacy still need to be addressed. E.g. the report underlines that the use of personal data as a ‘currency’ with which services can be ‘bought’ raises new issues in need of clarification and stresses that the use of personal data as a ‘currency’ must not lead to a circumvention of the basic principles governing the right to privacy and data protection.

Should robots have their own legal status?

The report asks to consider questions of liability and the potential legal status of robots. The more autonomous robots are, the less they can be considered tools in the hands of other actors (such as the manufacturer, the owner, the user, etc.). Thus, can the machine be held responsible for its acts or omissions? And should robots possess a legal status? (current legal categories are “natural persons”, “legal persons”, “animals” or “objects” – but does this mean that a new category should be created, with its own specific features and implications as regards the attribution of rights and duties, including liability for damage?)

See the resolution here