Robotics will be a key driver of economic growth

Europe is a world leader in AI and robotics, but investment is necessary to retain this position, writes Roberto Viola.

Robotics will be a key driver of economic growth | Photo credit: Adobe Stock

By Roberto Viola

11 Dec 2017

Making objects and devices intelligent is one of today’s major trends, and this will become even more important over the next decade. Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will be a key driver of economic and productivity growth in the future.

Many sectors, including health and farming, will benefit from these technologies, be it through faster and more accurate diagnosis of diseases or less pesticide usage as a result of precision farming.

Our continent is in a strong position, both scientifically and commercially. More than a quarter of all industrial robots and professional service robots are being produced in Europe.


The Commission has long recognised the importance and potential of robotics and AI and the need for significant investment in this area. We have set up SPARC, the public-private partnership for

AI and robotics in Europe. With up to €700m EU funding, complemented with private investment, it has an overall investment of €2.8bn, SPARC is a globally recognised, major civilian robotics research programme.

This investment is necessary to retain leadership. International competition is fierce. Companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, as well as countries like China, are investing heavily in robotics and AI.

We will only be able to benefit fully from these technologies and guarantee that European values such as human dignity and privacy protection are respected if Europe continues to invest and maintains a strong leadership role.

Regarding legal and ethical issues, we need to carefully assess the situation. It’s probably too far-fetched and speculative to assume that there is a need to regulate human-like artificial intelligence as portrayed in Hollywood movies.

While many of these robots and AI systems are impressive and have progressed a great deal recently, they are still very far from exhibiting genuine intelligent, human-like behaviour. We need to develop a fact-based approach to the capabilities of AI systems that will allow a knowledgeable and rational debate. Therefore, testing and experimentation will be important in gathering data and gaining experience.

Regarding the civil law rules of robotics and AI, the Commission welcomes the recommendations in Parliament’s report adopted under the leadership of Mady Delvaux. 

As far as the regulatory aspect of safety is concerned, the Commission is currently evaluating existing legislation, such as the defective products liability directive and the machinery directive, with a view of determining their fitness for purpose.

The digital transformation of work and the impact on jobs is receiving a great deal of attention and is a cause of concern to citizens. The Commission is fully aware of the challenge ahead and has already launched concrete measures. In December 2016, we launched the digital jobs and skills coalition aimed at equipping the workforce at large with the necessary digital skills to thrive in a digital workplace.

Far from replacing humans, our vision is that robots will help humans with mundane and routine tasks so we can focus on the essentials. A nurse should not have to carry bed linen around a hospital all day. This task could be done more easily by a robot, giving the nurse time to focus on patients.

Robots can also do jobs that are dull, dirty and dangerous, such as inspecting oil tanks, sorting out nuclear waste, or milking cows. Robots are already used in many areas with labour shortages such as healthcare, farming and even manufacturing.

In my opinion, taxing robots does not seem to be the right option for the time being. Most robots increase productivity, improve worker safety and make work more comfortable. A tax on robots could reduce investment in AI and robotics. Instead, up-skilling workers to prepare them for the changes ahead should be the priority.

Nevertheless, the situation on the labour market and the impact of digitalisation needs to be carefully and closely monitored. The current evidence base is less conclusive than it appears; we need to work on that.

In conclusion, AI and robotics offer enormous potential for economic development and societal improvement.

European research, development and innovation are thriving. Legal, ethical, societal and economic challenges should not be ignored, but these are manageable; we are in the process of assessing what measures are needed to address them.

Europe should not miss out on the many opportunities ahead. Our mission in the Commission is to make sure Europe is in a position to seize them. To this end, a comprehensive EU approach to AI will be presented in early 2018.


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