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Is It Time to Grant Legal Rights to Robots? What About Legal Liability?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 29, 2016 10:56 AM

Robots are humans too, right? Well, not exactly. But as artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to advance, some are arguing that the resulting technology could deserve basic rights -- a recognition of a sort of "electronic personhood."

In Europe, at least, the idea is getting some traction. A recent draft report by the European Union's Committee on Legal Affairs calls for the consideration of whether robots may be entitled to legal rights -- and how to hold them civilly liable should autonomous robots injure others.

A New Legal Regime for Robots?

Robots are playing an increasingly active role in Europe's economy and society, assembling machines, conducting surgeries, and driving vehicles. And they are doing so in increasingly autonomous ways. "The development of autonomous and cognitive features" has made robots "more and more similar to agents that interact with their environment" independently, giving rise to significant questions about their rights and responsibilities under the law.

It is time for Europe to being grappling with those questions, according to the Committee on Legal Affairs' draft report, released this summer. That report calls on the European Commission to consider:

creating a specific legal status for robots, so that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause, and applying electronic personality to cases where robots make smart autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently.

When robots can start to take truly autonomous decisions, "the traditional rules will not suffice to activate a robot's liability, since they would not make it possible to identify the party responsible for providing compensation and to require this part to make good the damage it has caused," the draft posits.

"Can I See Your Robot Insurance and Registration, Ma'am?"

The report considers several possible civil liability regimes, from strict liability, to apportioning liability "proportionate to the actual level of instructions given to the robot and of its autonomy," to adopting an insurance scheme similar to car insurance.

Not everyone is excited about these potential regulations, however. Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of robotics and automation at Germany's VDMA, said the proposal "would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics," according to Reuters.

Of course, the draft report was not all bureaucratic regulations and practicalities. The report also considers the possibility that, "within the space of a few decades AI could surpass human intellectual capacity," threatening "humanity's capacity to control its own creation and, consequently... to ensure the survival of the species."

It might take a bit more than insurance to stave off that.

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