EU backs report calling for robot civil law, but also kill switches

12 Jan 2017

Happy robot. Image: Besjunior/Shutterstock

The European Parliament has almost unanimously approved a report equating to a civil rights bill for robots, defining the most advanced machines as “electronic persons” – but not without the option of adding a kill switch.

While it could be decades before an autonomous robot passes the famous Turing test, the European Parliament (EP) is laying a framework that could set in motion the first civil rights bill for truly intelligent robots, with true AI in the future.

Earlier today (12 January), MEPs approved a report – 17 in favour, two against and two in abstention – written by Luxembourgish politician Mady Delvaux, which included the assurance that sophisticated autonomous robots would be classified as “electronic persons”.

This would include “specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause”.

Such potential for damage has not been lost on Delvaux, who cites Asimov’s laws of robotics as the guidelines to follow. These relate to intelligent robots being designed to follow a human’s command without question, while ensuring a human being does not come to harm.

Making sure Blade Runner doesn’t happen

Yet designers of robots, the report recommends, should integrate opt-out mechanisms – otherwise known as kill switches – that would allow an intelligent robot to be taken offline if necessary.

Also, in an attempt to alleviate fears of a potential Blade Runner scenario, robot designers “should ensure that robots are identifiable as robots when interacting with humans”.

Following the vote in favour of the report, MEPs are urging the European Commission to consider creating a European agency for robotics and AI to supply public authorities with technical, ethical and regulatory expertise.

In an interview published today by the EP, Delvaux stressed that she does not fear a robot takeover of people’s jobs – despite other sources begging to differ – and that there are many human qualities a robot simply would be unable to replicate.

“A robot is not a human and will never be human. A robot can show empathy but it cannot feel empathy,” she said, before adding that it should never come to a situation where you are “emotionally dependent” on a robot.

Starting in February, the EP will vote on the draft proposals, which will need to be approved by an absolute majority before entering into EU law.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic