By Grady Hepworth
Isaac Asimov’s 1942 short story “Runaround” is credited for creating the famous “Three Laws of Robotics.” Asimov’s Laws, although theoretically fictional (and most recently featured in the 2004 motion picture I, Robot), require robots to i) not hurt humans, to ii) obey humans, and to iii) only protect themselves when doing so wouldn’t conflict with the first two rules. However, the European Union (“EU”) made headlines this month when it took steps toward making Asimov’s Laws a reality.
The EU began considering the adoption of robotics laws in January 2017 when its Legal Affairs Committee formally called for legislation to create a European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). In addition to forming this agency, the Committee requested the adoption of a legal framework to address issues such as liability and security surrounding new technology. The Committee wants to “ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans;” and its work has the EU joining a growing list of leaders seeking stronger regulation of robotic and AI technology. The proposal gained momentum when members of the European Parliament voted 396 votes to 123 in favor of a resolution urging the European Commission to adopt the Committee’s proposals. (The only rejected recommendation was a tax on robotic goods, which would have been used to fund support for or retraining of workers put out of a job by robots.)
Among the proposals that the European Commission is urged to adopt is the creation of an official European agency for robotics and AI that would be responsible for forming EU technology policy, a law that would require robot designers to include a “kill switch” to turn off a robot during an emergency, and a law the would require driverless cars to be covered under insurance policies. What’s even more remarkable is that the Parliament adopted the Committee’s proposal for “creating a specific legal status of ‘electronic persons’ for the most sophisticated autonomous robots.” Yes, you read that right—the EU is considering the creation of what could become “Robo-rights.” Per the Resolution’s text, the intention of this legal status would be to ensure that:
[T]he most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons responsible for making good any damage they may cause, and possibly applying electronic personality to cases where robots make autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently.
The EU’s call for regulation comes in response to forecasts made by lead robotics and AI experts that technology, once only imagined in science fiction novels, will become an integral aspect of our everyday lives. In the past year alone, robotic engineers have created astounding applications of robotics technology for warfare, medicine, grocery shopping, transportation, coffee service, and even sex, just to name a few.
There is no telling exactly how or when self-aware robotics technology will come to fruition. But the EU appears to acknowledge that the “future” of robotics might be coming a lot sooner than one might think. As technology advances, it is increasingly important that our legal institutions keep up with it. After all, we don’t know how long it might be before we’re saying, “domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” to a robot with legal rights.