MEPs have voted to propose granting legal status to robots, categorising them as “electronic persons” and warning that new legislation is needed to focus on how the machines can be held responsible for their “acts or omissions”.
The draft report, tabled by Mady Delvaux-Stehres, a socialist MEP from Luxembourg, states current rules are “insufficient” for what it calls the “technological revolution”, and suggests the EU should establish “basic ethical principles […] to avoid potential pitfalls".
Ms Delvaux-Stehres’s resolution was easily passed by the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee, and a vote by the full parliament on the resolution is likely to take place in February.
The report suggests that robots and other manifestations of artificial intelligence such as bots and androids are poised to “unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched”.
“The more autonomous robots are, the less they can be considered simple tools in the hands of other actors (such as the manufacturer, the owner, the user, etc.)," they said.
“This, in turn, makes the ordinary rules on liability insufficient and calls for new rules which focus on how a machine can be held – partly or entirely – responsible for its acts or omissions.
“As a consequence, it becomes more and more urgent to address the fundamental question of whether robots should possess a legal status.”
Following the committee vote on her measure, Ms Delvaux-Stehres reiterated the need for a legal framework for robots, saying: “A growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics.
“In order to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework.”
Sales of robots rose by 29 per cent in 2014, the highest year-on-year increase ever, compared to an average of 17 per year between 2010 and 2014, according to the report, while annual patent filings for robotics technology have tripled over the past decade.
In June last year Google introduced a life-like ‘robot dog’ that can clean houses, while in May it was announced German researchers were in the process of creating an artificial nervous system that could be used to make robots experience pain.
Academics last year found that driverless vehicles could reduce the numbers of accidents by up to 90 per cent.
But they highlighted a difficult moral dilemma.
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In some situations, the robot driver might have to deliberately crash, killing all its occupants, to avoid killing more people outside the car.
People were in favour of this system, but only for other people. When asked what car they would buy, they told researchers they would choose one that protected the occupants in all circumstances.