MEP: ‘My main concern is that humans are not dominated by robots’

MEP Mady Delvaux expects new rules from the Commission to rule robots in the next few months.

Mady Delvaux, a Socialist MEP from Luxembourg, has been tasked with drafting the first regulatory proposal worldwide to address the rise of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.

The European Commission’s hands-off approach in other cutting-edge fields should not be applied here, she told euractiv.com. Otherwise, she warned, humanity could face the apocalyptic scenario where robots turn on their human masters.

What is the main challenge that should be addressed from a regulatory point of view?

The most urgent issue is to regulate artificial intelligence. Given that it is so difficult to define robots, what I would recommend is to look at the different applications of robotics, to try to find pragmatic solutions to the problems that may arise. Firstly, we will have to deal with automated cars, as there are problems related to liability, data protection, privacy or cyber security. Since we started our work relatively early, we have the chance to define principles that could be applied to the EU as a whole, instead of trying to catch up once all member states have done their job. Robots are invading our daily life. What surprises me the most is the fast -pace of progress. It is progressing much faster than I thought when I started working on this topic.

What about specific issues such as liability?

From a legal perspective, I would say liability is the most urgent topic. If a robot causes some damage to a person or some property, could we apply the existing principles? An option could be that robots come with compulsory insurance, like with cars. I know that the insurance sector is not very happy about it. The first responsible actor in preventing any harm is the manufacturer. But this is a controversial issue.

On top of it you have data protection and privacy issues. Robots cannot work without data and they are connected. From an ethical point of view, we have to defend the European values. Therefore a robot cannot harm humans, and humans must remain in the loop. You need not only to trust a robot but also to decide if you want a robot, and turn it off when you decide. My main concern is that humans are not dominated by robots, but robots serve humans.

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In the report you said that the most sophisticated robots could be held partially or entirely responsible for their acts, giving them the status of electronic persons…

The report asks the Commission to monitor what is happening and to contemplate different scenarios. One of the scenarios could be to give robots an e-personality. This is a very controversial issue. The model could be companies, as they have legal personality (with rights and obligations). The robotic community is not very fond of this solution.

The Commission champions a ‘wait and see’ stance when it comes to regulating emerging fields and technologies. Why do you think new rules are urgent in this case?

We have to propose a regulation which is flexible enough to evolve. That is why I propose a European agency for robotics, which could monitor what is happening. The agency could be a partner for industry and it could help to build consumers’ trust. Also we have to bear in mind that there is competition between countries in this field. But I would prefer to interact with a European robot that meets safety and security standards that we can define now, preventing robots from third countries with lower standards from accessing the European market.

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Wouldn’t it be possible that another existing agency takes this role?

I am in talks with US experts and they are also proposing a national agency for robots. If you leave it to other agencies, you will have silo solutions. However, there are common issues and challenges related to robotics even if the applications are different. You also need to gather the sufficient knowledge and expertise on this topic. The agency would not only include engineers, but also ethics experts and sociologists, because the agency will be about the interaction with humans.

Do you fear that robots will steal our jobs?

This is the initial reaction when I talk to people about robots. But we don’t know what is going to happen. What we know for sure is that robots will change the way we work. Some jobs will disappear. The question is how many new jobs will be created by the industrial revolution. Experts are divided. Half of them believe many jobs will be destroyed, the other half argue that many jobs will be created. If jobs are lost, we will have to reflect on how to organise our society, how we finance the social security systems.

Do we need to rethink our welfare state model?

Nowadays, the main source of tax revenues comes from labour. If jobs become scarcer because of the development of new technologies, we have to think of new means to finance the welfare state.

Are you in favour of the universal basic income proposal?

Personally yes, but I am not sure if it would pass the legislative process. I propose to consider it as an option in the report. Even in my group, the Socialists, opinions are divided. It brings a lot of questions, such as how high the basic income should be or what to do with our free time.

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Given that the progress of robotics could pose a challenge to the very existence of humans, would it not be right to stop the technological development at some point?

Some of my colleagues have asked the same question. There are seven committees looking at this report. One proposal could be to forbid the research in certain areas. We could do that but we cannot prevent other non-EU countries from continuing work on it.

We can try to regulate the EU, but we need to discuss it with the US, China, Japan or Korea, because this is a global phenomenon. That is also one of the reasons for setting up an agency, as it could be the body to discuss norms with the international community.

Which are the sectors that represent the biggest threat? The military field?

I did not want to enter into the military field because it is too complicated. Defence issues are for specialists and, anyway, they do whatever they want. It is impossible to regulate [laughs]. A controversial field is human enhancements, and how far you could go with them. It is very good to repair the damage suffered by a person. Robotic exoskeletons can help handicapped people to have a normal life, but they could also enhance them. They could make people stronger or faster. Besides, it is an intervention on the human being. This scares me a lot.

Will the Commission put forward new rules in line with your report?

The Commission has to react and comment on it. I had some contacts with the executive. They will come forward with some regulation, mainly on liability in the next months. We will vote on the report in a plenary session most likely in January.

Further Reading

  • European Parliament's draft report on Civil Law Rules on Robotics