June 13, 2017      

What is it about German robotics that makes that country a technology leader? Maybe it’s the investment of millions of euros to jumpstart Industry 4.0. Or it could be having the third-highest robot density in the world. The Hannover Messe conference also reflects Germany’s position.

With all these achievements and more, perhaps it’s better to call Germany an automation superpower.

From KUKA’s high-end, versatile robot arms to Siemens’ swarm robots that can 3D-print objects, Germany has often set the benchmarks for industrial automation and supporting technologies. Also, KUKA’s purchase by China’s Midea Group could lead to household robots.

This three-part series looks at key themes emerging in German robotics. As Western Europe’s most populous nation addresses robotics, makes innovations, and serves as a testing ground, the whole world is paying attention. Shouldn’t you?

In this first part, I look at German robotics policies and their implications for Germany and beyond.

Public policy for German robotics

Germany is pushing for more than €350 million ($391.9 million) to jumpstart Industry 4.0, which would apply robotics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things to advanced manufacturing.

While the development and deployment of robots gets a lot of attention, the most pressing issue facing the global robotics industry is a lack of coherent policy.

As governments debate how to regulate an emerging and important sector, laws will need to go beyond worker safety and energy consumption. Nations must be ready for cyber security, liability for autonomous and semi-autonomous systems, and potential job displacement.

German robotics laws are hitting the books while the rest of the world is still discussing possibilities.

Self-driving car rules hit the autobahn

German robotics success depends in part on national-level regulation.

Last month, the German government allowed automakers to begin testing autonomous cars. The laws, which require a human in the driver’s seat at all times and “black boxes” to record operations, are among the first of their kind.

Usually, cities, states, or provinces are the entities passing such regulations. In Germany’s case, it was the upper parliament, so robotics is on the minds of politicians in the highest levels of the government.

What will the German legislature focus on next? With self-driving cars, Germany isn’t waiting for localities or other nations to make rules for autonomous systems. It’s also noteworthy because the country has focused on self-driving cars as having the most immediate economic potential.

German robotics includes ethics proposals

Last year, the German transport minister proposed three rules for autonomous systems such as collaborative robots, echoing prolific author Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

They state that “Property damage always takes precedence over personal injury,” “There must be no classification of people,” and “If something happens, the manufacturer is liable.”

The third proposal has two implications. The first is that it reflects an acceptance by German politicians that accidents due to robots malfunctioning will happen and that rules are needed to handle these situations.

Second, it shows that Germany is not overlooking the importance of robot ethics. Protecting workers from a malfunctioning robotic arm or pedestrians from self-driving vehicles is as important as protecting job seekers from a biased artificial intelligence.

Monitoring robot surveillance

German robotics policies are also being formulated for internal security and foreign policy — specifically regarding surveillance. In February, Germany’s Federal Network Agency, which regulates telecommunications, gas, and more, banned a robotic doll called “My Friend Cayla” under espionage laws.

The doll has microphones that allow a child to interact with it, but it collects and sends all this data to a company in the U.S. This is similar to concerns that Amazon Alexa was listening to and recording to all conversations in households.

Many countries are still struggling with how to maintain privacy and security with phone calls and e-mails. However, Germany is already tackling surveillance through robots. Even though Cayla’s data is stored in the U.S., Germany may be wary because of recent espionage cases such as that of Edward Snowden.

EU, German robotics regulations diverge

Some industry observers have predicted that robots will replace millions of jobs, and proposals such as taxing robots and a universal basic income are among the reactions. German businesses and the European Union have taken different approaches to this issue.

Last year, the EU floated the idea of labeling robots as “electronic persons.” VDMA, a German industry association that includes Siemens and KUKA, challenged the proposal. In fact, a managing director at VDMA said that such proposals might be more realistic in 50 years, not 10 years.

This European debate is a good reminder that even though Germany is the EU’s most powerful member, its businesses won’t always agree with EU rulings. It remains to be seen how the EU and German robotics priorities can be harmonized.

More on Global Robotics:

German robotics leadership still growing

Along with Japan and the U.S., Germany has been a leader in industrial automation. It has the third-highest robot density in the world — 292 robots per 10,000 workers.

German robotics is now entering a new phase, as cobot safety, self-driving cars, and AI and jobs challenge the relationship between robots and society. The German government and businesses are looking ahead and setting policies that could keep them ahead of competitors in Europe, North America, and Asia.

In addition, other themes are emerging in German robotics, which I’ll discuss in upcoming articles.