By Kai Peters and Eike Radszuhn
A few days ago, an e-mail popped up in the inbox of lawmakers and lobbyists in Brussels with an alarming subject line. "Robots will rule us with their iron fists", forecasts a popular EU news website in its daily newsletter, announcing a grim future for European citizens in an increasingly automated world: "Robots. They can't be reasoned with, they don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear." There is only one woman, according to the journalist, who could save humanity from "total enslavement by robot overlords": Mady Delvaux, a 66-year-old Luxembourger who is currently serving her first term in the European Parliament for the Socialist Workers Party.
Though the pessimistic piece was - of course - written in jest, the MEP Delvaux will indeed play a central role in the EU’s current efforts to create a political and legal framework for a digitized and automated economy. As Vice-Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, she is supervising a recent report by the European Parliament on likely future developments in the field of robots and artificial intelligence. So even if Delvaux will probably not have to save mankind from its doom, she is likely to have an influence on how and to what extent Europeans will use autonomous systems in the future.
Moreover, the dystopian article was to some extent symptomatic of the debate that has unfolded in Brussels on how to deal with the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence. Politicians in both the Parliament and the European Commission have discovered that robots will play a central role in the European economy as well as in the daily lives of citizens. The ideas of a political approach to this phenomenon, however, range from practical proposals to highly-speculative visions of the future. Since automatization is one of the pillars of Industrie 4.0, the outcome of the debate will also have a significant impact on the European regulation of a digitized industry.
Report on robots
The EU's interest in robots is not entirely new. The Communication "Digitizing European Industry" by the German Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger is already relevant to automation technology in the EU. A Communication on the Free Flow of Data, which is expected to be published in early 2017, will deal with the question of liability regarding autonomous systems. However, the Parliament's report on "Civil Law Rules on Robotics" is so far the initiative that is most focused on robotics in particular. In January, the report will be discussed in the plenum of the European Parliament. Once adopted, the 22 pages constitute an express request to the Commission to cope with legislation proposals on robotics.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. VDMA has long argued that a political framework for digital technologies must not be imposed by EU member states individually. Instead, a common European (or even international) approach is needed in order to create a single market for Industrie 4.0. "It is a positive step to see this debate taking place at a European level in its very early stages, since we need a political framework for the EU in a couple of years, and not only a patchwork of 28 national initiatives", said VDMA's Chief Executive Director Thilo Brodtmann in an interview published by Euractiv in July.
In this particular case, however, VDMA has concerns about whether the debate is really heading in the right direction. The main critic against Mady Delvaux's report is that it combines all kinds of ideas, priorities and timeframes. It is true, for instance, that the EU needs a discussion on who would be accountable for possible damages caused by autonomous systems. This debate is already in full swing with respect to autonomous driving and will certainly become even more relevant to the industry in the future. Companies and customers might indeed be more easily inclined to turn to innovative technologies if there were clear rules for their usage.
On the other hand, the report also ponders scenarios where robots replace human workers on a large scale and even somehow become part of our societies. One idea is to let robots pay taxes and social security contributions in order to finance a universal basic income for Europeans. Furthermore, the authors see a need for "criteria for 'intellectual creation' for copyrightable works produced by computers or robots", and are thinking about a legal status as an "electronic person" for robots, comparable to the concept of natural persons and legal entities. "My main concern is that humans are not dominated by robots, but robots serve humans", Delvaux explained in an interview on her robot report.
No legislation based on science fiction
VDMA, in contrast, is rather concerned that premature legislation might hinder automation technology from reaching its full potential. "We should not start solving problems that do not exist", said VDMA's Executive Director Brodtmann in his interview. "For instance, a universal basic income financed by a tax on machines is a pretty bad idea, since it will increase the costs involved when companies apply modern technologies."
In general, lawmakers should see innovations such as robots and artificial intelligence not as a danger, but as a chance for European industry to stay competitive. One unfortunate myth is that automation inevitably leads to net job losses. On the contrary, a rise in productivity leads to a higher output and income. In turn, jobs are created compensating those that were initially lost. Germany, for example, has the world's third-highest robot density and its robot population is increasing in the factories, and yet still employment is going up. A precedent is the sports equipment manufacturer Adidas, who recently announced that they are going to begin producing some of their sneakers in Germany again - which is of course only possible thanks to automation.
Still, one has to remember that some ideas in the discussion on robot law are a part of the usual political hullaballoo. These days, Industrie 4.0 and digitization as a whole are popular topics, and politicians might be tempted to enhance their own profile with such startling proposals.
And even MEP Mady Delvaux acknowledges that today, nobody will be able to predict what the future will look like. "I propose a European agency for robotics which could monitor what is happening", she said in her interview mentioned above. Indeed, it could be counterproductive to limit the scope for further progress unchallenged. Delvaux rightly says: "We have to propose a regulation that is flexible enough to evolve."