The EU is not really giving robots human rights; but some of its proposals are cause for concern. James Vincent on the Verge provides a sensible commentary which corrects the rather alarming headlines generated by the European Parliament draft report issued recently. Actually there are several reasons to keep calm. It’s only a draft, it’s only a report, it’s only the Parliament. It is said that in the early days the Eurocrats had to quickly suppress an explanatory leaflet which described the European Economic Community as a bus. The Commission was the engine, the Council was the driver; and the Parliament… was a passenger. Things have moved on since those days, but there’s still some truth in that metaphor.

A second major reason to stay calm, according to Vincent, is that the report (quite short and readable, by the way, though rather bitty) doesn’t really propose to treat robots as human beings; it mainly addresses the question of liability for the acts of autonomous robots. The sort of personhood it considers is more like the legal personhood of corporations. That’s true, although the report does invite trouble by cursorily raising the question of whether robots can be natural persons. Some other parts read strangely to me, perhaps because the report is trying to cover a lot of ground very quickly. At one point it seems to say that Asimov’s laws of robotics should currently apply to the designers and creators of robots; I suspect the thinking behind that somewhat opaque idea (A designer must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law?) has not been fully fleshed out in the text.

What about liability? The problem here is that if a robot does damage to property, turns on its fellow robots (pictured) or harms a human being, the manufacturer and the operator might disclaim responsibility because it was the robot that made the decision, or at least, because the robot’s behaviour was not reasonably predictable (I think predictability is the key point: the report has a rather unsatisfactory stab at defining smart autonomous robots, but for present purposes we don’t need anything too philosophical – it’s enough if we can’t tell in advance exactly what the machine will do).

I don’t see a very strong analogy with corporate personhood. In that case the problem is the plethora of agents; it simply isn’t practical to sue everyone involved in a large corporate enterprise, or even assign responsibility. It’s far simpler if you have a single corporate entity that can be held liable (and can also hold the assets of the enterprise, which it may need to pay compensation, etc). In that context the new corporate legal person simplifies the position, whereas with robots, adding a machine person complicates matters. Moreover, in order for the robot’s liability to be useful you would have to allow it to hold property which it could use to fund any liabilities. I don’t think anyone is currently thinking that roombas should come with some kind of dowry.

Note, however, that corporate personhood has another aspect; besides providing an entity to hold assets and sue or be sued, it typically limits the liability of the parties. I am not a lawyer, but as I understand it, if several people launch a joint enterprise they are all liable for its obligations; if they create a corporation to run the enterprise, then liability is essentially limited to the assets held by the corporation. This might seem like a sneaky way of avoiding responsibility; would we want there to be a similar get-out for robots? Let’s come back to that.

It seems to me that the basic solution to the robot liability problem is not to introduce another person, but to apply strict liability, an existing legal concept which makes you responsible for your product even if you could not have foreseen the consequences of using it in a particular case. The report does acknowledge this principle. In practice it seems to me that liability would partly be governed by the contractual relationship between robot supplier and user: the supplier would specify what could be expected given correct use and reasonable parameters – if you used your robot in ways that were explicitly forbidden in that contract, then liability might pass to you.

Basically, though, that approach leaves responsibility with the robot’s builder or supplier, which seems to be in line with what the report mainly advocates. In fact (and this is where things begin to get  a bit questionable) the report advocates a scheme whereby all robots would be registered and the supplier would be obliged to take out insurance to cover potential liability. An analogy with car insurance is suggested.

I don’t think that’s right. Car insurance is a requirement mainly because in the absence of insurance, car owners might not be able to pay for the damage they do. Making third-party insurance obligatory means that the money will always be there. In general I think we can assume by contrast that robot corporations, one way or another, will usually have the means to pay for individual incidents, so an insurance scheme is redundant. It might only be relevant where the potential liability was outstandingly large.

The thing is, there’s another issue here. If we need to register our robots and pay large insurance premiums, that imposes a real burden and a significant number of robot projects will not go ahead. Suppose, hypothetically, we have robots that perform crucial work in nuclear reactors. The robots are not that costly, but the potential liabilities if anything goes wrong are huge. The net result might be that nobody can finance the construction of these robots even though their existence would be hugely beneficial; in principle, the lack of robots might even stop certain kinds of plant from ever being built.

So the insurance scheme looks like a worrying potential block on European robotics; but remember we also said that corporate responsibility allows some limitation of liability. That might seem like a cheat, but another way of looking at it is to see it as a solution to the same kind of problem; if investors had to acept unlimited personal liability, there are some kinds of valuable enterprise that would just never be viable. Limiting liability allows ventures that otherwise would have potential downsides too punishing for the individuals involved. Perhaps, then, there actually is an analogy here and we ought to think about allowing some limitation of liability in the case of autonomous robots? Otherwise some useful machines may never be economically viable?

Anyway, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not an economist, but I see some danger that an EU regime based on this report with registration, possibly licensing, and mandatory insurance, could significantly inhibit European robotics.

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