The science of robotics is a swiftly advancing field. We are inching ever closer to artificial intelligence and robot workforce. But do we really know how and where robots fit into our lives? Are robots tools, coworkers, or friends? And will this change in the future? A new report from the EU's legal affairs committee recommends that we clarify the legal status of robots sooner rather than later. It even suggests that they could be given a form of personhood and rights.
Robots and the Law
The report begins by referring to influential writers, such as Mary Shelley and Karel Capek (who invented the word "robot"). It says that people have always "fantasised about the possibility of building intelligent machines". It goes on to discuss a broad range of robot-related concerns and possibilities, arguing that we are on the verge of a "new industrial revolution", but have yet to think about how to regulate it. The report's author, Luxembourgish MEP Mady Delvaux, asserts that "we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework" for robotics.
Delvaux's report, which was passed through the European parliament in January by a majority of 17 to 2, makes a lot of suggestions for such a framework. Among other things, she argues that we should establish a clear legal definition of "smart autonomous robots". She says that an ethical code of conduct should be introduced to guide robotics engineers and suggests a mandatory corporate insurance scheme to cover damage caused by robots. According to Delvaux, serious thought should be put into the effects of robotization on other workers, who may be made obsolete. And the report covers not only industrial robots, but also other innovations like self-driving cars.
Human Rights for Robots?
The report's most controversial implications involve the question of rights and personhood. The fact that a robot comes closer to being considered, in legal terms, a person with rights, raises many issues. Should a robot create something, is that creation then property of the robot or of its owner? If a robot is a person, do AI experiments become unethical? If a robot works for you, should it be paid?
These questions are not addressed in the report itself, but they will surely inform the direction of future debate on this issue. For now, robotic personhood is a sort of technicality, but as robots become more and more intelligent, we might be seriously asking ourselves whether they are people too. The question is not only how we use our technology, but how we live and work alongside it.
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