EU robotics rules: right time to address ethical issues

To turn the robotics revolution into an opportunity, the EU needs a sound legal framework, writes Mady Delvaux.

By Mady Delvaux

23 Nov 2015

Robotics are one of the most relevant technological innovations of this century, a revolution that will impact society and the economy in many ways. 

Today, surgical robots assist surgeons. Search and rescue robots collaborate with people in executing dangerous tasks such as decommissioning. Agricultural robots are increasingly used on our farms and fields. 

Other robots augment human capabilities with exoskeletons enabling elderly or disabled people to move. In the near future, driverless cars could populate our streets. The sheer range of robotics is spectacular.


This variety entails a challenge to define what exactly a 'robot' is. This is very difficult, because Parliament's report will cover all kinds of robots: industrial robots, service robots - such as hoovers and intelligent fridges - health and surgical robots, drones, cars and artificial intelligence (AI). We know where we will start, but not where we will end.

Generally speaking, EU regulations are either unclear or non-existent in the field of robotics. For example, the current legal framework is not fit for autonomous machines and human-robot collaboration and interaction.

To transform the robotics revolution into an opportunity for Europe, we should set up a working group on the legal and ethical implications of robotics and AI. Taking action at European level will provide legal certainty, ethical guidance and scale for the many European start-ups and SMEs excelling in robotics.

Liability rules and insurance, data protection, cyber security and regulation of human enhancement have been identified as the main legal challenges for all robotics.

Autonomous and self-learning robots raise moral and ethical questions that we will address. Immediate and specific action is required for automated and, in the future, autonomous cars.

It's also important to test robots and see how they act, and what accidents can arise from their interaction with humans. We must also consider the question of equal access - if robots really do make life easier, we need to ensure everyone can afford them. 

The US, China, Korea and Japan are currently working on very ambitious projects. If we do not create the legal framework for the development of robotics, our market will be invaded by robots from outside the EU. The European Parliament could be the first Parliament in the world to discuss and create such a legal framework.

I truly believe robotics will bring about a revolution. Of course, this will eliminate certain kinds of jobs, but it will also create new ones. If industry uses more automation robotics, it will become more efficient and competitive, allowing companies to relocate their production back to Europe.

Now is the right time to decide how we would like robotics and AI to impact our society, by steering the EU towards a balanced legal framework fostering innovation, while at the same time protecting people's fundamental rights.


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