Europe mulls treating robots legally as people ... but with kill switches

Just in case we need to give our talking toasters a brainxit

A robot and person shaking hands

The European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs has proposed a legal framework for robots that clarifies whether they should have the legal status of people, even as it recommends the inclusion of kill switches in automated systems.

"A growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics," said rapporteur Mady Delvaux in a statement. "In order to address this reality and to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework."

The committee's draft report, due to be considered by the full EU Parliament in February, says that robot sales were increasing about 17 per cent annually between 2010 and 2014, then in 2014 the rate jumped to 29 per cent, driven by automotive parts suppliers and the electronics industry. It also notes that robot-oriented patent filings have tripled over the last decade.

In short, robots and automated systems are becoming more commonplace and regulators need to consider how they should fit into society.

The EU committee's concerns echo those raised by the Obama administration last October in a report titled "Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence." China, Japan, and South Korea are also considering rules for robots, the report says.

The committee is calling for an EU agency to oversee robotics and artificial intelligence and for the adoption of a voluntary ethical code governing who will be accountable for the social, health, and environmental impact of robots. It wants to ensure that robots operate according to established legal, ethical, and safety standards.

The committee also hopes robot designers will take responsibility for the actions of their creations. "Robotics engineers should remain accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts that robotics may impose on present and future generations," the report says.

Self-driving cars represent an area of specific concern. To deal with the potential costs of accidents involving driverless vehicles, the report suggests an obligatory insurance scheme in which the makers of automated vehicles pay into a fund to cover damage claims.

The report suggests such insurance could be extended to cover a broader set of robots against property damage claims while shielding robot makers from financial liability.

It also advises considering whether to create "a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations..."

The report calls for robots to be better defined in terms of their roles and capacities. The need for such definition can be seen in Uber's recent insistence that its self-driving cars don't quality as self-driving cars under the definition laid out by California law.

Other recommendations include access to robot code for accident investigations, ensuring that robots are interoperable so they can interact with one another, and designing robots to respect human privacy rights.

If the voluntary standards governing online advertiser behavior offer any indication of how these guidelines might be received, the EU's proposed robot rules will not be observed any time soon. ®


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