The European Parliament’s plenary session voted today (16 February) against a universal basic income to compensate for the impact of robots on the labour market.
By a broad majority, the Parliament adopted a non-legally binding report with recommendations to the European Commission on rules on robotics.
Arguably, the report represents the first effort by legislators worldwide to prepare the regulatory ground for the emerging sector of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics.
Despite the fact that most groups supported the recommendations, the plenary rejected the most controversial proposals.
These were the recommendations for setting up a universal basic income, a robot tax and allowing consumers to collectively claim compensation for damages generated by intelligent machines.
“Report on robotics adopted in Plenary. Disappointed because right-wing coalition refuses open-minded debate!” rapporteur Mady Delvaux tweeted (S&D).
The report proposed to start debating new employment models and assessing the sustainability of our tax and social systems “on the basis of the existence of sufficient income, including the possible introduction of a general basic income”.
A total of 286 MEPs were in favour of the recommendation, while 328 were against and eight abstained.
The idea was initially adopted by the Parliament’s Legal Affairs committee.
On the eve of the vote, the Luxembourgish Socialist stressed the need to debate “how to guarantee a sufficient income to citizens”, given that jobs would become “more rare”.
In order to feed the public coffers to pay for initiatives such as a basic income, or to retrain unemployed workers whose jobs have been lost, the report called for examining a tax “on the work performed by a robot or a fee for using and maintaining a robot”.
This idea was rejected by 14 votes (288 in favour versus 302 against; with 22 abstentions).
For opponents, “robot tax will kill innovation”, said Estonian Eesti Reformierakond MEP Kaja Kallas (ALDE) during the debate.
“We will be left using robots, not creating them,” she added.
A majority of MEPs preferred to focus at this stage on the issue of liability, one of the main elements included in the report, instead of discussing the introduction of controversial taxes.
Instead of the universal basic income, legislators spoke in favour of support programmes to facilitate the transition to new jobs.
In regards to liability, the Parliament called for establishing “a compulsory insurance scheme where relevant and necessary for specific categories of robots” to cover for the potential damage caused by robots.
It suggested creating a general fund for all smart autonomous robots or specific funds for different robot categories. It remains open whether contributions should be based on a one-off fee or periodic transfers.
The report also recommended, in the long run, creating a specific legal status for the most sophisticated autonomous robots (“electronic robots”).
“Robots will not enjoy the same legal physical personality,” said the Maltese Partit Nazzjonalista MEP Therese Comodini (EPP).
But “for the purposes of the liability for damages caused by robots, the various legal possibilities need to be explored”, she commented.
The Commission will come up with a proposal on the issue of liability in the coming months.
Speaking at the plenary, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, recalled half a dozen pieces of legislation already applied to robotics.
He added that “obviously” adjustments to the current legislation would be made, given that “legal certainty” is of paramount importance for investors.
But he underlined the “complexity of the digital technologies” to clarify who is liable when problems arise.
Terminator not a model
During the debate, some MEPs criticised the tone of the report, as they considered it rather “negative” and “emotional”.
Books and movies are not a “good basis” to start the debate, Kallas said. “If we think of robots as ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Terminator’ we get it wrong,” she told her colleagues.
Delvaux argued that it was not a “technophobic report” because it also underlined the advantages of the upcoming technology. But a lot of people were “very worried”, and “we have to take their concerns seriously”.
In recent months, numerous voices including business leaders and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned of the impact of self-learning machines and artificial intelligence in terms of job losses.
Moedas pointed out that different studies reached “diverging conclusions”, from “catastrophic” to positive outcomes. But he agreed that the impact of intelligent machines on our lives and jobs “must be closely monitored”.
Nicolas Jeanmart, head of personal insurance, general insurance and macroeconomics at Insurance Europe, questioned some recommendations of the report. “Compulsory insurance only works in specific cases and when certain market pre-conditions are met; such as the availability of sufficient claims data, a high level of standardisation and plentiful insurance capacity to manage risks and cover claims. This is not the case for robotics," he said.
The digitalisation of industry – or Industry 4.0, as Germans call it – is being touted as a revolution that will fundamentally alter the way companies produce and consume. Politicians in Europe regard it as a game-changer with a potential to re-industrialise the continent and wrest back production and manufacturing they have lost to regions such as Asia.
Around half of EU member states are currently implementing initiatives related to Industry 4.0. On top of these national efforts, last April, Commissioner Günther Oettinger defended an EU-wide strategy. He argued that it could ensure "scale", mobilise actors with value chains spreading across Europe and support interoperability and standardization.
Besides automation, the European Commission has pinpointed access to technology for SMEs and non-digital industries, data ownership, security, standards and skills as important issues.