April 23, 2015      

Elected members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have formed a working group on robotics and over the next year will prepare a set of proposals for a legal and regulatory framework governing European robotics and human enhancement technologies.

Chaired by Mady Delvaux, an MEP from Luxembourg, the working group will focus on legal challenges such as liability, insurance rules, standardization, and certification alongside the regulation of human enhancement and ethical questions.

The group will draft a report with recommendations that will then be presented to the European Commission for adoption. Its work starts today.

Robotics and the law

“The primary mission is to drive awareness of robotics and help inform MEPs and the public,” Delvaux told Robotics Business Review. Delvaux said she hopes the group will help create a legal framework that “on the one hand secures the economy,” but also “protects human rights, our values, and the safety and security of workers and consumers.”

One of the questions the group will investigate is whether human enhancement technology should be made available to all without restrictions. It will also consider data and privacy issues.

“Who owns the data? How will it be used? Who has access to it? All these questions have to be discussed,” said Delvaux.

Other group members include Kaja Kallas from Estonia, Jean-Marie Cavada of France, Tiziana Beghin from Italy, Michal Boni of Poland, and Max Andersson from Sweden.

Horizon 2020 encounters headwinds

Delvaux criticized recent proposals to divert Horizon 2020 funds from scientific researchers and invest them in the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI), which is intended to aid recovery in the European economy.

“I do not approve of the proposal to invest that money in the new investment fund. This issue will be voted on next week. I do not appreciate money being taken from fundamental research,” said Delvaux, who helped organize “Robots Out Of The Cage” — an event designed to bring MEPs up to speed on some of the legal and regulatory issues raised by robotics and human enhancement technology.

Although national finance ministers want the redirection of funds, researchers lobbied the European Parliament to protest. Two committees ultimately rejected the proposal to divert funds to the EFSI.

A European Robotics Agency and winners and losers

Among the ideas to emerge at this week’s event was a proposal to create a European Robotics Agency.

“Personally, I think it would be a good idea,” said Delvaux, who noted that one MEP has already proposed Prague as a suitable base for such an agency.

Technological unemployment is a real concern, but the studies are unclear about the impact of robotics on jobs, said Delvaux.

“I am sure that there will be losers and winners … but historical data shows that technological revolutions usually create net new jobs,” she said. “Our concern as policymakers is to help with this transition. One thing we will look at is training people to collaborate with robots.”

In preliminary discussions with representatives of the robotics industry Delvaux has found that industry is “asking for a framework.”

Delvaux added that she would like to see a move away from country-specific legislation and toward a pan-European model.

“Different national legislation is not a solution,” she said. “I absolutely advocate a European approach, and drones are a good example because drones don’t stop at frontiers. You fly from Luxembourg City, and in five minutes, you are in Germany.”

“So, I think it is a very bad idea to have national legislation, [and] there is an urgent need to create — for some aspects of robotics — a European framework. Drones are a good example. Another example is driverless cars,” said Delvaux, adding that, in her view, member states would be “grateful to adopt coherent legislation on robotics.”

“Now is the right time to decide how we would like robotics to impact our society,” said Delvaux.

EU hopes to leave innovation unfettered by liability

Among the issues and challenges facing policymakers is identifying liability rules that “do not hamper innovation and achieve adequate and prompt compensation for the injured party,” said Andrea Bertolini, from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, a co-author of the RoboLaw document (download PDF), which inspired much of the recent interest in robotics among European legislators.

Ensuring “narrow, tailored technical standards to ensure product safety turning ex post uncertainty into ex ante costs,” will be another challenge, said Bertolini.

Policymakers will also need to develop definitions of driverless vehicles “to allow circulation on roads — at least for experimental purposes and under safe conditions at first — eventually creating deregulated areas where testing in safe conditions is permitted more easily,” said Bertolini, who, like Delvaux favors a pan-European approach to these issues “to ensure uniformity across the European market.”

There is no guarantee that the European Commission will accept the recommendations of the working group.

“The commission may act upon if interested and if political pressure is successfully exerted,” as Bertolini put it.

“Regulation could then be adopted based on the inputs received,” said Bertolini. “Of course, legislation adopted does not necessarily have to conform to the content of the document proposed, but it may be assumed that if the considerations are reasonable, they will be used.”

Editor’s note:

Listen to the complete interview with Mady Delvaux: