Robots as “Electronic Persons”? The EU’s Odd Proposal Gets Industry Pushback

A European Union proposal that would regulate robots, out of concern that they might take jobs away from people, has a leading engineering group worried that innovation in the robotics space could be stunted.

Could robots soon be regulated like people under European Union regulations? Turns out that’s already being discussed.

With technology shifting and automation improving, there is a growing concern that robots could hurt the underlying economy by taking jobs away from people, thereby negatively affecting public safety nets.

In response, the European Union Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs recently filed a draft proposal [PDF] with the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics. The proposal recommends that robots be called “electronic persons” and that robot-owning companies pay social security fees lost due to the ensuing decrease in human employees.

“At least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations,” the report stated.

The draft suggests the creation of a new European robotics agency for “technical, ethical and regulatory expertise,” where robots would be identified and classified on a registry. Companies that use robots would then be required to insure them and, if those devices are doing automated work, cover costs saved on social security.

“It Would Be Very Bureaucratic”

At least one association, the German engineering group Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Angalenbau (VDMA), which translates as Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, found this approach questionable, arguing such a regulatory strategy was coming too early in the industry’s development.

“We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” Patrick Schwarzkopf, VDMA’s managing director for robotics and automation said in comments at a recent conference.

The association, with international branches in Brazil, China, India, Japan, and Russia, represents over 3,100 companies behind developing technologies.

In his comments made at the Automatica robotics trade fair in Munich, Schwarzkopf added that there was no connection between robotic automation and unemployment. But he did concede that self-driving cars may soon need a legal framework.

Is Now the Time?

When is the right time to regulate robotics? Schwarzkopf says in 50 years, perhaps. But the member of EU’s parliament who is pushing the draft policy, Luxembourg’s Mady Delvaux, sees such a need for regulations coming a lot sooner.

“Now is the right time to decide how we would like robotics and AI to impact our society, by steering the EU towards a balanced legal framework fostering innovation, while at the same time protecting people’s fundamental rights,” Delvaux wrote in an op-ed last year.

She points out that the EU could be the world’s first parliament to debate the rising trend in automation, maybe eventually forming a kind of legal framework.

“If we do not create the legal framework for the development of robotics, our market will be invaded by robots from outside,” Delvaux warned last year.

Patrick deHahn

By Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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