A European Parliament committee will look Thursday (12 January) at a draft resolution relating to the regulation of robotics. The text could become the basis for the first European legislation on automation and robots. EURACTIV Germany reports.
American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced The Three Laws of Robotic in his 1942 short story, Runaround. The first of those laws is: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
Some 70 years later, Asimov’s Laws are forming the principles of a draft resolution that is being looked at by the European Parliament. The report in question is not a legislative initiative, rather it is a set of recommendations to be sent to the European Commission, asking the executive to draw up a legal framework for the civilian use of robots.
If the text gets approval then the first European-wide law on robotics could be just over the horizon.
In addition to ethical issues, liability risks and other dangers that humans could face, EU politicians will also be looking at the potential changes that could be forced on the world of work as automation becomes more prevalent.
It is nothing new: robots have been revolutionising the workplace for some time. Beyond robots being used in industrial production, there has been in a sharp uptake in the use of software like Chatbots in call centres and digital bots in social media marketing.
Germany is a market leader in robotics and according to its engineering association, VDMA, trade went up by 7% in 2015 compared to the previous year with record sales of €12.2 billion observed.
In terms of industrial robotics, the Bundesrepublik is ahead of the European field and consistently ranks 4th worldwide, just behind Korea, Japan and Singapore.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), for every 10,000 employees in Germany there are 301 industrial robots.
MEPs fear that widespread use of robotics could have drastic consequences for the labour market though. In the draft resolution, “the threshold of a new era” is mentioned, in which sophisticated robots, androids and “other manifestations of artificial intelligence” could spark a new industrial revolution that “is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched”.
The text calls on the European Commission to start monitoring job trends more closely so that it can be better identified where positions are being created and lost. If automation turns out to be a ‘job killer’ then the report insists that a general basic income should be “seriously considered”.
But how serious a risk that actually remains a controversial subject. Business information specialist Olivier Mendel told EURACTIV.de that “in any case, it will mean less work for people. It is the purpose of machines to replace people and to carry out certain tasks without human intervention”.
But Mendel, who advised the Bundestag on the issue last summer, added that it could also mean the creation of new jobs.
Professor of Law Eric Hilgendorf expects displacement in the labour market and warned that it will also be the case for “demanding professions like banking consultants, teachers and journalists. Ultimately, no profession will be spared from the new developments.”
He added that, as a result, “its is not only politically advisable, but necessary from a legal standpoint, to counter possible social upheavals that will arise from the digital revolution at an early stage.”
MEPs are also pushing for new data protection rules that will take into account intelligent machines’ potential to collect information and monitor people.
This is especially true of drones and the report insists that the remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) framework is the best way to “protect the safety, security and privacy of EU citizens”. It calls on the Commission to revisit recommendations made by the Parliament back in October 2015.
European governments are upping the ante in drone research investment and €500 million has already been pumped into flying robots R+D.
Around 400 drone systems are currently being developed in 19 different member states, as shown by a Commission working document. These projects are primarily aimed towards the improved monitoring of maritime, air and land borders.
Some experts believe though that the Parliament’s report is just the beginning of the debate on setting down rules for robotics. Olivier Mendel acknowledged that the initiative is “overall, very sound” but insisted that the issue should have been discussed more “radically” in both Brussels and Berlin.
He added that in the possible negative effects of automation there are opportunities to be had, including utilising the surplus of human labour in a more socially responsible manner, creating a basic income or even giving people shares in robot factories.
Mendel concluded that the problem is not using robots as workers but how society uses the increase in efficiency. He expects that within a decade in many jobs “only four or five hours per day per worker” will be available.
However, the expert sees an opportunity in this too and suggests that “we need to define our lives differently and make it no longer just about work”.