March 22, 2017      

The European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs has proposed the creation of regulations for the legal status and safe operation of autonomous machines. Any new robot rules could affect the development and adoption of robotics and artificial intelligence, not just in Europe, but worldwide.

In this two-part article, we’ll explore key issues around the potential European Union legislation. Let’s start by examining the current market conditions and the impetus for starting now. Part 2 will discuss possible solutions and the impact of these efforts.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robotics stakeholders should begin working immediately on an international legal framework because such efforts will take time.
  • For instance, autonomous vehicles are already being tested, so the risks associated with them need to be addressed.
  • New robot rules should address current and future use cases and avoid restraints on innovation.

The EU to create a new robotics agency

In an attempt to head off the development of different laws within each member country, the legal affairs committee has recommended that the EU create an agency to focus on all of the issues around robotics and AI.

Robot rules are being developed to cover autonomous vehicles and AI.

Tesla and other automakers are testing autonomous driving features in Europe. Testing the Tesla autopilot feature. Credit: Marc van der Chijs

The intent is to generate a uniform set of guidelines to help the technology and the market develop in the coming years. They would provide for compliance, liability, and the social impacts of autonomy.

The new agency would have responsibility for technical, ethical, and regulatory issues. The committee started with the definition of “smart” robots. However, its most immediate concern appears to be the regulation of autonomous vehicles, since several companies headquartered in the EU are currently working on self-driving cars.

The agency would have multiple domains:

  • Technical guidelines for supervisory systems and controls
  • Ethical guidelines relating to the interaction between humans and machines
  • Regulatory rules for safe operations

Defining “smart” and “safe”

There are already many global definitions for “smart machines” such as industrial robots and autonomous vehicles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined five levels of autonomous driving.

The International Organization for Standardization describes autonomous service robots in ISO Standard 8373.

The classic industrial robot safety standard is ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012. In addition, EN 1525 was one of the first standards to be developed for driverless trucks and systems.

For mobile robots operating in the U.S., the newest working group is ANSI R15.08. This American National Standards Institute committee (a.k.a. ASTM F45) met for the first time last summer, and its third meeting occurred early this month in Dayton, Ohio.

The scope of the Committee on Driverless Automatic Guided Industrial Vehicles includes two main areas: mobile platforms with a “sufficient degree” of autonomy, and mobile platforms with a mounted robot arm or manipulator.

For industrial collaborative robots, ISO TS 15066 outlines the primary safety requirements for cobots and the work environment.

With the exception of the NHTSA, none of the above robot rules covers machines outside of the factory floor.

Why the EU?

Why is the EU leading this push for additional regulation? The key lies in the regulations of the European Parliament and the desire to get ahead of the innovation curve that is occurring in robotics, autonomous vehicles, and AI.

The EU may create a new agency with its proposed robot rules.

The European Union, minus the U.K.

In 2014, Europe experienced its highest year-on-year increase in robot sales ever — 29%. AI has also matured and is now being connected to physical devices such as mobile robots. The service robot sector is burgeoning, and more and more systems are being sold and deployed into use cases where they interact directly with humans.

Thus the EU has decided to evaluate the market and try to protect the public from dangerous situations such as collisions with robots. The draft report is intended to help ensure continuity of regulations and provide international manufacturers with a uniform set of safety protocols.

Who you gonna call?

We live in a litigious society. Therefore, one of the first issues to sort out is the hierarchy of responsibility for damages in the case of an accident where there is injury and/or property damage due to the failure of an autonomous machine or as a result of the decisions made by an artificial intelligence.

  • Is the manufacturer of the machine or AI ultimately responsible?
  • Is it the owner of the autonomous machine?
  • Is it the user interacting with the machine at the time of an accident?

If the machine is capable of making its own choices based upon how it was trained, how does this play out in a court where human laws have been broken by the machine? Will there be a way to rewind and untangle the logical choices made by the AI to get to cause and/or fault?

Ultimately, accountability in any incident needs to be distributed proportionately based on the the level of instructions given to the machine. We’ll explore this in my next article on robot rules.

Gates and the EU differ on robot taxes

Bill Gates recently came out in favor of taxing robots. However, an EU committee last month rejected a proposal to tax robot owners to fund support for displaced workers or retraining them.

“The human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” Gates said. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

The Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics responded: “The IFR believes that the idea to introduce a robot tax would have had a very negative impact on competitiveness and employment.”

“This would impose an enormous bureaucratic burden, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, with no clear sustainable benefits,” said Walter Zulauf, chairman of association EUnited Robotics. “Regulations must take care not to hamper innovation and Europe’s competitiveness.”

More on AI and Robot Rules:

Robot rules: the new event horizon

Metaphors aside, we are truly entering a new age of intelligent machines. Although science fiction has many popular and scary robots, the reality is that many questions to be asked and answered around the liability and safe operation of these machines as the technology evolves in the coming years.

A resolution covering EU-wide liability rules passed with a majority vote last month. In my next article, we’ll look at the consequences of several AI choices that are being considered by the EU.