June 23, 2016
One of the main side issues in the generally unpleasant debate about the UK’s referendum on EU membership has been that about worker’s rights. Whatever the outcome of today’s vote, the EU is already exploring ways in which legislation should address the challenges created by the modern world. These now include, for the first time, a look at the implications of automation including the drawing up of a new set of rules about the rights and responsibilities of robots and other automated workers. A draft report from the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs sets out to address the main issues associated with the creation of a widespread automated workforce and its impact on both people and machines, including looking at the impact on the social security and pensions budget (because robots don’t pay into the system), the legal rights of robots and new liability rules for the automated workforce of sophisticated ‘smart’ robots.
The report suggests that the corporate tax system may need to be restructured with companies obliged to declare the impact automation has on their social security contributions and pay more into the system to compensate. In addition, the report suggests that the rise of automation will increase calls for the EU to consider the creation of basic income systems to protect people from the impact of a coming wave of mass unemployment.
The issue that will grab all the headlines, including our own, is the creation of a new legal entity which will effectively see robots classed as ‘electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause’. These rights will also include intellectual property rights for their inventions alongside a range of obligations related to their public liability along with rules not dissimilar to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, which will include the obligation for programmers to incorporate provisions that robots should act in the best interests of humans. The report calls on the European Commission to consider ‘that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations’.
The need to create this status is driven by rapid advances in robotics that will see a new generation able to act and move around autonomously, learn new ideas and abilities and interact with people in intelligent ways.
While the report claims that automation will be good for people and the economy overall, it also acknowledges the problems that will arise including the possibility that mankind loses control over its own destiny. The European Parliament may vote on the plans at some point over the next 12 months, according to the authors, and if the motion is passed it would then be up to the EU Commission and council of ministers to draw up any related laws.