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Should robot workers be considered 'electronic persons'?

A draft proposal from the European Parliament would grant a legal status to 'smart robots' that could include a social security fund and coverage for any accidents they cause.

Francois Mori/AP/File
Pepper, a robot made by Softbank Robotics Europe performs during the Innorobo European summit, which focuses on service robots, in Aubervilliers, France, in May. The European Parliament is considering a proposal to grant 'smart robots' a legal status of 'electronic persons.'

Robots are increasingly performing many tasks in factories around the world, while efforts to create self-driving cars and other autonomous transportation are gaining ground, leading some to ask if these workers ought to be treated more like their human equivalents.

Now regulators in Europe are asking, "Should, your robot co-worker should be considered an “electronic person'?"

Making reference to Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" and to the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who coined the term "robot" in a 1920 play, a draft proposal from the European Parliament says robots would have “the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause....”

The proposal, dated May 31, includes a requirement that companies declare how much they would save in social security contributions through the use of robot workers.

Along with the potential tax implications, the proposal also aims to create liability rules for accidents caused by so-called smart robots and even intellectual property rights for inventions they create, PC Magazine reports.

But the idea of robots filling many jobs, possibly pushing human workers out in the process, has raised significant concerns. A German engineering association that includes many tech companies, such as industrial automation giant Siemens, say the rules are jumping the gun.

“We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the robotics and automation department at VDMA, which also represents the robot maker Kuka, told reporters at the Automatic robotics trade fair in Munich on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

“That we would create a legal framework with electronic persons – that's something that could happen in 50 years but not in 10 years,” Mr. Schwarzkopf said.

The effort, drafted by the EU’s Committee on Legal Affairs, argues that the “electronic persons” status should be given to “at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots.”

That’s necessary because as the technology continues to develop, humans need to consider thorny questions of how robots will interact with humans, argues Mady Delvaux, vice-chair of the EU committee.

The US, China, Korea, and Japan are currently working on very ambitious projects. If we do not create the legal framework for the development of robotics, our market will be invaded by robots from outside the EU,” Ms. Delvaux wrote in an opinion in The Parliament Magazine in November.

The rules also call for further privacy protections and say users “are not permitted to modify any robot to enable it to function as a weapon.”

Debates about employment have long been delicate. One perspective, particularly centered in Japan, where the population is aging, argues that robots could free human workers up from dull and repetitive tasks.

But when it comes to automated transportation, with robotic trains gaining significant ground outside the US, some transit workers raise safety concerns.

“As you start to get dogs running across the track, or big rats like they have in New York, or fires, a human being is prepared for the unexpected and knows how to respond,” Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents workers in the US and Canada, told The Christian Science Monitor in April.

“Computers have to see the same situation again and again before they’re actually trained to respond to that," he added.

The EU’s proposal could still be a longshot, as it must secure backing from various factions in the European Parliament. It would also be a non-binding resolution, Reuters reports.

Many technologists, including Mr. Schwarzkopf of Germany’s VDMA, say further rules are necessary on self-driving vehicles because that technology is growing increasingly sophisticated. But Ms. Delvaux, the EU official, says Europe should go further.

“Now is the right time to decide how we would like robotics and AI to impact our society, by steering the EU towards a balanced legal framework fostering innovation, while at the same time protecting people's fundamental rights,” she wrote in November.

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