MEPs want ‘free cash’ to address job-killer robots threat

The robots are coming for us and EU lawmakers want to be ready for them. [Generation Grundeinkommen/ Flickr]

EU legislators today (12 January) called for a universal basic income to combat the looming risk of job loss by the onward march of robots, as well as concerns about European welfare systems.

Technological progress is no longer seen as safe path toward prosperity. A new generation of robots and the development of artificial intelligence may improve how we manufacture goods or how we spend our leisure time.

But this new wave of intelligent gadgets and autonomous robots could also destroy thousands of jobs without creating new ones in the same proportion, warned a non-legislative report adopted by the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee (JURI).

The development of robotics and AI has raised “concerns about the future of employment, the viability of social welfare and security systems” and, ultimately, is “creating the potential for increased inequality in the distribution of wealth and influence”.

MEPs have, as a result, told member states that a universal basic income should be “seriously considered”.

The debate about the universal basic income is gaining ground in Europe and the wider world. Finland became the first nation to test the distribution of free cash to citizens as part of a social security scheme at the beginning of this month.

Universal basic income debate gains traction in the EU

Against the backdrop of the “fundamental transformation of the world of work”, Commissioner for Employment Marianne Thyssen is paying close attention to “free money” experiments ahead of a discussion next year with member states on how to improve social policies.

Parliament rapporteur Mady Delvaux, a Socialist MEP from Luxembourg, welcomed the inclusion of the proposal because there is “a big risk” that robots will destroy jobs, she told euractiv.com after the vote.

But she doubted the universal basic income proposal would survive the Parliament’s plenary vote, expected to take place in February or March.

Delvaux was also “surprised” that a majority of her colleagues in the committee backed an amendment that invites the examination of a tax on the work performed by robots or a fee for using and maintaining a robot.

The money would be used to support and retrain workers whose jobs have been affected or even destroyed by the onward march of automated machines.

Universal basic income paid by a 'robot tax' is a bad idea

Although the digitalisation of industry is a top priority among EU decision makers, Europe should not be concerned about job losses caused by growing automation. Instead, member states should teach the new generations the skills required for a digital future, believes the VDMA chief, Thilo Brodtman.

The Commission is expected to react to the report in the next few weeks.

A Commission spokesperson said yesterday (11 January) that the institution will consider any request for new legislation against the background of existing rules.

Delvaux is particularly urging the EU executive to come up with proposals to deal with the potential harm created by robots.

“Robots’ civil liability is a crucial issue which needs to be addressed at EU level so as to ensure the same degree of transparency, consistency and legal certainty throughout the European Union for the benefit of consumers and businesses alike,” the text reads.

‘Robots are leaving the cage’, dazzling EU lawyers and regulators

How should autonomous and self-learning robots be considered from a legal viewpoint? Under plans currently under discussion, they can be regarded as pets or even as “robot persons” in their own right, EURACTIV.com has learned.

In the short term, the document proposed an obligatory insurance scheme, similar to the system in place for cars. But in this case, the producer could cover the insurance for the autonomous robots.

In the long run, MEPs suggested that “the most sophisticated autonomous robots” could have the status of electronic persons, “with specific rights and obligations” like “applying electronic personality to cases where robots make smart autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently”.

The report stresses that whatever form future legislative instruments on addressing liability issues takes, the type or the extent of the damages to be recovered, or the compensation that could be offered, should “in no way” be limited just because the damage is caused by a “non-human agent”.

While drones, driverless cars, or even sex robots are penetrating our daily lives, Delvaux insisted that her main concern is to do the groundwork so that it can be ensured that “robots serve humans, and we are not dominated by them”.

That is why humans should have always the switch at hand in case the all-powerful robots turn against their masters.

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

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.

Background

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.

Industry 4.0: The future of manufacturing is here

The European Commission is preparing an action plan for publication in April to mobilise an estimated €25 billion to harness the potential of the fourth industrial revolution, euractiv.com has learned.

Timeline

  • February or March: vote in the Parliament's plenary session.

Further Reading

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

  • Draft report on Civil Law Rules on Robotics
  • Research Service study on the ethics of robotics.