The European Parliament recently adopted a formal resolution on Civil Law Rules on Robotics, which highlights issues that the Parliament thinks need addressing in the light of the advances being made in robotics and artificial intelligence. The resolution contains recommendations on research, education and legislation.

European Parliament calls for legal rules on robotics

The European Parliament has taken note of the spectacular progress being made in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which is making itself felt for example in the increase in the number of companies selling robots in the wider sense, including autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial systems (drones), manufacturing robots and humanoid robots capable of holding a conversation. Accordingly, the EU elected assembly commissioned a report on Civil Law Rules on Robotics from its Legal Affairs Committee, which was duly submitted on 27 January. On 16 February, the European Parliament voted in plenary session to adopt a resolution containing the report’s recommendations. The Parliament is firstly requesting as a general principle that the European Commission should “propose common Union definitions of cyber-physical systems, autonomous systems, smart autonomous robots and their subcategories (…)” The characteristics of a ‘smart robot’ would include “the acquisition of autonomy through sensors and/or by exchanging data with its environment (inter-connectivity) and the trading and analysing of those data; self-learning from experience and by interaction; a physical support; the adaptation of its behaviour and actions to the environment; and absence of life in the biological sense”.

A European Agency for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

The text adopted by the European Parliament also proposes “that a comprehensive Union system of registration of advanced robots should be introduced within the Union’s internal market where relevant and necessary for specific categories of robots. The Parliament makes no attempt to draw up “criteria for the classification of robots that would need to be registered” but calls on the European Commission to do so. Also called for is the creation of a European Agency for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence “to provide the technical, ethical and regulatory expertise needed to support the relevant public actors, at both Union and Member State level, in their efforts to ensure a timely, ethical and well-informed response to the new opportunities and challenges, in particular those of a cross-border nature, arising from technological developments in robotics”. The Agency envisaged by the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) would be allocated its own budget and be staffed by regulators and external technical plus AI ethics experts. It would make recommendations regarding regulation, address potential consumer protection issues and investigate systemic issues arising from the boom in robotics.

Speeding up research and education

Also included in the text is a series of recommendations regarding research and innovation in the robotics sector. The Parliament regards it as essential for the European Union “to remain a leader in research in robotics and AI‟ and calls on the European Commission and the EU Member States to “strengthen financial instruments for research projects in robotics and ICT, including public-private partnerships”. The MEPs also stress the need to implement the principles of open source and responsible ethical innovation. They argue that “interoperability between systems, devices and cloud services (…) is essential for real time data flows enabling robots and AI to become more flexible and autonomous”. The resolution also deems it urgent to create a means of public dialogue on the potential consequences of developments in the robotics and artificial intelligence fields.

The Parliament also stresses that education systems must be adapted in order to meet research needs. The resolution draws attention to the Commission’s forecast that “by 2020 Europe will be facing a shortage of up to 825,000 ICT professionals and that 90% of jobs will require at least basic digital skills”. The Parliament accordingly asks the Commission and the Member States to develop more professional training courses on the new technologies and ensure that education systems are able to prepare their citizens adequately to enter an economy where robotics will be omnipresent. “Social, creative and digital skills” will be the three key areas of competence in the new economy, and education must therefore be designed to develop these skills, say the MEPs. Lastly, the text underlines that, in addition to the knowledge imparted during school years, there will be an increasing need for lifelong learning. This echoes the remarks made during an interview with L’Atelier BNP Paribas by psychologist and author Serge Tisseron on the real threat of robotics in general, and AI in particular, to future jobs.

Ethical principles and rights for robots

The MEPs also wish to address the ethical principles regarding robots. The Parliament “considers that the existing Union legal framework should be updated and complemented (…) by guiding ethical principles in line with the complexity of robotics and its many social, medical and bioethical implications”. The resolution proposes “a framework in the form of a charter consisting of a code of conduct for robotics engineers, and a code for research ethics committees when reviewing robotics protocols”. However, if ethical principles are to work, we also need full transparency. Parliament’s text suggests that every decision taken by a robot should be traceable, intelligible and transparent: people must be able to understand why a robot has taken a certain decision, plus the criteria that caused it to act as it did. This principle picks up on the work of Grégory Bonnet, assistant professor at the University of Caen in Normandy, who leads a group researching into the ethics of artificial intelligence. “We hope that an ‘autonomous agent’ would always be able to understand the decisions it had taken, and be able to say: ‘I acted this way based on such and such an ethical principle’, or ‘because any other decision would have had such and such a consequence’, etc.‟, said Bonnet recently in conversation with L’Atelier BNP Paribas. The European Parliament argues that “advanced robots should be equipped with a ‘black box’ which records data on every transaction carried out by the machine, including the logic that contributed to its decisions”.

Lastly the resolution proposes ways in which legislation should be adapted to respond to the robotics boom. It suggests creating a system of insurance, similar to the mandatory cover taken out by car owners, which would require robot owners to take out insurance to compensate for any damage caused by their machines. The Parliament also proposes establishing a specific legal status for the most sophisticated robots. Legally these would become “electronic persons responsible for making good any damage they may cause”. A fund would be set up for this purpose, suggest the MEPs, financed by the manufacturer, owner or user – a solution that has already been recommended in France by lawyer Alain Bensoussan.

By Guillaume Renouard