June 15, 2015      

As a committee of members of the European Parliament meets to discuss robotics regulation, Robotics Business Review interviewed Andrea Bertolini, one of Europe’s leading experts on robot law.

Bertolini was co-author of the RoboLaw whitepaper (download PDF), which examines legal, ethical, regulatory, and policy issues around emerging robotic and cyborg technology in a European context. Bertolini also helped present RoboLaw’s findings to the European Parliament earlier this year.

RBR: We last spoke after the release of the RoboLaw report. Whitepapers often have little impact after publication, but RoboLaw seems to be bucking this trend by generating quite a bit of interest among European policymakers.

Can you bring us up to speed on what has happened since publication?

Bertolini: Prof. [Erica] Palmerini — the project coordinator — and I were invited to the European Parliament to present our results to the JURI committee. The presentation elicited interest from various members of the European Parliament. Soon, we were again invited to a meeting where we were asked to discuss some of our considerations in more detail and identify those strategic moves we believe Europe should be making early on to gain a relevant role in the robotics industry.

As a result, Mady Delvaux-Stehres decided to create a committee within the European Parliament to discuss such issues. I was invited as one of two academic speakers — the other talked about the effect of robotics on jobs — at a roundtable at the European Parliament, where I presented my conclusions and sketched some plausible approaches to solving them.

RBR: As a refresher for our readers, can you summarize some of those “plausible approaches” you are referring to?

Bertolini: When it comes to liability, there is one fundamental intuition. Apparently, existing rules do not have a positive and appreciable effect in enhancing safety and thus defeat one very relevant purpose for their existence.

At the same time, given the complex litigation they require, they do not provide adequate and prompt compensation to the victims. Safety may be better addressed through narrow tailored technological standards, compensation through compensation plans, and insurance.

RoboLaw expert Andrea Bertolini

Andrea Bertolini describes ways to approach robot liability.

I believe Europe should invest regulatory efforts in both directions. One possibility is also that of creating some deregulated areas to ease testing.

RBR: Why do you think policymakers are getting interested in robotics now?

Bertolini: Robotics is emerging. It is in the news, in the general public discourse; philosophers and futurists depict more or less imaginary — rarely utopic or — more commonly — dystopic scenarios, further triggering debate and concern.

This is very dangerous in a policy perspective because it may attract attention to wrong issues and raise excessive concern, ultimately leading to bad regulations being adopted for ideological reasons. Two topics are excessively emphasized: the potential impact of robotics on jobs, and the role of artificial intelligence in erasing/enslaving the human race.

At the same time, robotics is a promising industry, and great advantages can be gained by developing a reasonable legal system capable of favoring its safe and reliable development. This is the kind of considerations I like to make to attract the much-needed attention of policymakers to the topic, and I also believe these are the kind of realistic and reasonable considerations that should guide the adoption — in some cases at least — of new and narrow tailored regulations.

RBR: Do you think policymakers are sufficiently up to speed on robotics and cybernetics issues to legislate effectively? And, if not, how do you plan to educate them on the most pressing challenges?

Bertolini: What I always try to do and make very clear is the distinction between reality and fiction. The real possibilities provided by technology and the relevant concerns on the one hand, and science fiction on the other hand, the latter needing to be disregarded for sound policies to be enacted.

RBR: In your conversations with policymakers, have you noticed divisions along political lines? For example, have you found politicians from the left to be more opposed to industrial robotics due to fears of technological unemployment? Similarly, have you found pro-business politicians to be less concerned about social/ethical issues around robotics? How do you expect issues such as technological unemployment to play out in the political sphere?

Bertolini: I don’t yet see a clear political distinction in the debate concerning the development of robotics. This might be due to the fact that it is not yet too developed. However, it would be in everybody’s interest to treat this issue in a non-ideological fashion.

Take, for instance, the legitimate concerns about the impact of robotics on employment. Should robotics increase unemployment, it would be a problem for Western economies, irrespective of the political orientation of single individuals. However, there is no clear evidence that this will be the case.

Relocation of production into industrialized countries, the reduction of production costs, the creation of new kinds of employment, and the economic growth generated by robotics may well counterbalance and overcome potential negative effects.

Managing this phenomenon in a post-ideological way, aiming at providing European citizens with adequate education, appropriate norms, and a growing new industry is key, and this should be the only concern of all politicians.

If we adopt ideological positions and delay the emergence of robotics in the process, we will soon find out that it is simply impossible. Those same technologies will be developed elsewhere, and the industry will prosper there, bringing economic benefits to that country or region that did not adopt such a blind strategy.

If we take the opposite stance and say that robotics needs no regulation and that politics should not get involved, we would be mislead just as much, by two false assumptions. The first one [is] that regulation only hampers development, while instead it can be necessary to allow the full exploitation of its potential. The second is that there is no need to think ahead and manage innovation so as to avoid it becoming disruptive.

These issues are technical and require adequate technical, legal, and economic expertise to be effectively tackled. In this respect, the move the European Parliament is making with this commission appears to be more than reasonable and going in the exact right direction.

I have very high hopes of this initiative, and I praise MEP Delvaux-Stehres for taking this reasonable stance.

RBR: So, what’s next for robot laws and regulation in Europe?

Bertolini: I hope the commission will do a thorough analysis of some of the issues we raised and take into account some of the solutions we sketched and suggested. More generally, I believe the establishment of a European Robotics Agency, providing adequate policy considerations and suggesting adoption of regulations along the development of this industry, would be a very wise choice.

Personally, I continue my research in this field and recently won funding to undergo some empirical studies on alternative liability models that could be used to address some of the issues posed by robotics more effectively, providing more adequate incentives to investors, researchers, and users of robotic technologies.

RBR: That sounds like a fascinating topic of research. And greatly needed. We’ve written about robotics insurance and found that many robotics products cannot be insured via standard product-liability insurance packages.

Can you briefly describe some of the alternatives you are proposing?

Bertolini: Insuring robotics products requires us to clarify the legal setting as well as to elaborate techniques to compensate [for] the absence of relevant statistical data on the kind of accidents and their consequences.

This may use game theory and technology itself to provide much-needed data for the setting of the premium. As soon as the research is more advanced, I will be happy to share my conclusions with you more in details.