Europeans May Grant Robots ‘Legal Status’

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A new report from a commission with the European Union are using science fiction to explain why they want to grant robots personhood as well as liability for crimes. But, researchers who actually work with robots say this is a terrible idea.

The report for establishing the Civil Law Rules on Robotics within the European Union was released quietly last year but only now is seeing a formal push back.

European Commission Report Based On Frankenstein and Sci-Fi

Last year, the European Parliament gave a motion for a resolution, giving recommendations on how to update the Civil Law Rules on Robotics.

There is one single line that’s caused hundreds of people to object, but here are some funny parts of the introduction. I think introduction, written by overpaid consultants and un-elected representatives, shows off everything that’s wrong with the elitist, useless European Union.

…whereas from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster to the classical myth of Pygmalion, through the story of Prague’s Golem to the robot of Karel Čapek, who coined the word, people have fantasised about the possibility of building intelligent machines, more often than not androids with human features.

… whereas in the face of increasing divisions in society, with a shrinking middle class, it is important to bear in mind that developing robotics may lead to a high concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a minority.

…whereas ultimately there is a possibility that in the long-term, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity…

Then the report continues on with the science fiction theme by discussing the “Three Laws of Robotics” which were designed by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov was not a philosopher, or computer scientist, or expert in ethics, he was a trained biochemist. So, not exactly the kind of person you want to be calling the shots on how humans interact with robots. While he was very talented, he had a massive ego and said that he has only met two people smarter than him, Carl Sagan and computer scientist Marvin Minsky.

Asimov, a committed atheist, is not my ideal person to make the ethical rules. But, the European Union cites his three “rules” of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

‘Electronic Person’ Line Causing Uproar

In the pages-long report, one line is the main cause of trouble, and it’s the bit about “electronic personality.” Here is the passage, edited for clarity.

This passage appears under the heading “General principles concerning the development of robotics and artificial intelligence for civil use,” under the subheading of “liability.”

[This report ] calls on the Commission, when carrying out an impact assessment of its future legislative instrument, to explore, analyse and consider the implications of all possible legal solutions, such as: creating a specific legal status for robots in the long run, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons responsible for making good any damage they may cause, and possibly applying electronic personality to cases where robots make autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently;

Good God! Before we go giving robots personhood, can we at least get the same protection for unborn children?

And since this is only on “civil” use, will robots used in war be allowed to kill without being sent to robot jail?

Open Letter to Euro Commission Against ‘Person’ Line

According to a letter from Robotics Open, which is a group that supports the “development, distribution and adoption of open software and hardware for use in robotics research, education and product development,” the “electronic persons” line must be struck.

What is “Open Software?” ‘Open’ software and hardware are ‘open source’ meaning they are not patented and are made available for free, and this software is often worked on by many people at once to create a new product that will continue to be free. Your copy of Windows is not open source, because its creators did not put the source code up for viewing and changing, but you are likely using some open source programs like Firefox internet browser, Moodle which is a popular education tool or Android on your Samsung phone.

The signers to the letter — right now there are 156 of them, ranging from universities and research councils from Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Croatia, Hungary, the UK and more — say that assigning liability for actions to robots is a bad choice. There are other options that make more sense, like handing liability off to the person or persons that have created the program.

In the letter, one of the strong complaints is that the report is “distorted by science fiction” and over-evaluates “the actual capabilities of even the most advanced robots.” In the final analysis, the letter says that the true heart of European Union laws should be the protection of people using the robots, and third parties who are impacted by the movements of a robot. Hard not to agree with that!

For fun, here’s a supercut of Boston Dynamics ‘abusing’ their robots. Who knows, maybe teasing a computer will be a crime some day. The robot being set up to trip over banana peels is my favorite.

Sources: Cnet, European Union, Robotics Open

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