Machines, Robotics an AI : Technology is part of our lives.

Like personal assistants, our smartphones and apps, computers and social media, ease our days, help us keeping in contact with friends and acquaintances, manage our working schedules, our workouts, and even help us find a job. In a society where human interaction with technology is increasing, challenges are a natural consequence.

Robots have been used for quite some years now in the industry, autonomously performing repetitive tasks, in shop floors, where collaborative robots can work in close connection with humans, in medicine, just think about surgical robots, and even in our homes, where they clean our floors giving us some additional free time. Within this picture, artificial intelligence is just another step further. In fact, as research continues its progress into new and unexplored possibilities, it might be even possible for robots to soon have feelings. However, as the Director General of DG CONNECT at the European Commission R. Viola underlines, this is still a futuristic vision, as for now the software-based AI agents ‘are still far from exhibit intelligent and human-like behaviour.’ Nevertheless, together with sophisticated sensors and connectivity, artificial intelligence is ‘currently making all kinds of devices and objects around us intelligent.’

As highlighted by Zoe Williams in her article ‘If robots are the future of work, where do humans fit in?’ (theguardian.com), if AI dominion era and similar apocalyptic visions are more than unrealistic, there is still a very real and pressing issue that demands immediate attention: the impact of AI on human labour. In fact, the increasing use of robots and AI agents for several different tasks is already reshaping and transforming the world of jobs where such machines are used.

With the sales of robots rising by 29% in 2014, patent filings on the rise, and German researchers creating an artificial nervous system, if the aim of technology is our benefit, such transformation would ideally entail the creation of more fulfilling jobs than the ones AI will perform for us. However, the automated future ahead is further challenging an uncertain economy and posing once again the question on how best to address the distribution of resources. In fact, quoting the physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, ‘everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.’

The call for attentive monitoring and evaluation of the current trends and possible impact of self-learning machines and AI in the labour market, especially on possible displacement and loss of jobs, also came from business leaders and the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde.

However, the EU Parliament did not entirely share these concerns or, at least, did not agree on the proposed solution. In fact, during the plenary vote adopting the report on a possible common legal framework to regulate both the usage and creation of robots and AI agents, 328 MEPs from a right-wing coalition voted against the proposition of a universal basic income. Such was included to specifically address the impact of an increased use of robots on the labour market, as the EU Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee called for a measure ‘to combat the looming risk of job loss by the onward march of robots, as well as concerns about European welfare systems.’

As pointed out by the reports’ author, Luxembourg Socialist MEP Delvaux-Stehres, EU institutions are appointed with the challenging task of finding solutions aimed at guaranteeing a ‘sufficient income to citizens’, especially considering that, quite soon, jobs will become rarer. Delvaux’s report, inspired by the need of addressing AI and robotics’ reality ensuring that such ‘are and will remain in the service of humans’, asks the EU to consider debating new employment models and evaluate the sustainability of European welfare systems ‘on the basis of the existence of sufficient income, including the possible introduction of a general basic income.’

Whether sustainable or not, given the amount of work and debate it would entail, the establishment of a basic income changes the current ‘principle of national insurance based on contributions and the sharing of risk to a system of income as a right’. As such, it is possible to grasp its revolutionary nature, and the controversies it entails, not only from a pure numbers perspective. However, its rejection by the EU Parliament plenary, opting for supporting programs facilitating the transition to new jobs, seems to have halted the debate on its feasibility at least for now.

Therefore, even if the EU Parliament adopted the non-legally binding report, thus recognizing the need of uniform standards and regulations, MEP Delvaux-Stehers soon expressed her disappointment, tweeting that ‘[…] the right-wing coalition of ALDE, EPP and ECR refused to take account of possible adverse consequences on the job market’, and accusing them of rejecting ‘an open-minded and forward-looking debate and thus disregard[ing] the concerns of our citizens.’

As for funds and numbers, Delvaux’s report was further controversial as it addressed the feasibility of the basic income proposition, and the further training of workers who’d loose their jobs with the advent of robotics and AI, calling for the evaluation of a tax ‘on the work performed by a robot or a fee for using and maintaining a robot.’  Dissenting voices constituted the majority, as some considered that ‘robot tax will kill innovation’ (Estonian Eesti Reformierakond MEP Kaja Kallas from ALDE), or that EU should focus on the how best to improve ‘the skills required for a digital future’ rather than on future work loss (Thilo Brodtman, VDMA).

Even though the EU MPs preferred to find common ground in uniform liability regulations, the boldness of Delvaux’s report did not stop at basic income and further taxes. In fact, it also envisaged the creation of a specific legal personhood for the ‘most sophisticated autonomous robots’, with the aim of clearly establishing who would be liable for eventual damages. In fact, the report stresses out that the more robots and AI agents become autonomous, ‘the less they can be considered mere tools in the hands of other actors’ such as owners and users. Hence, the ordinary civil rules on liability will soon become insufficient. Hence, the report highlights the urgency of addressing the fundamental yet extremely ethically disputable ‘question of whether robots should possess a legal status.’

Such proposal may be somehow worrying, as it entails a discussion on which set of rights to attach to such personhood: a debate that, even if it surely must engage civil society and different stakeholders, we might not yet be ready to have. Nevertheless, as future seems nearer than expected, even if MEPs acknowledged and recognised the centrality of human dignity urging for the adoption of a voluntary ethical code of conduct on robotics that would regulate operations in accordance with legal and ethical standards, the harsh questions still demand to be comprehensively addressed.

How will we rethink human labour? How will we minimise the robotics impact on labour markets? How will we requalify our skills? Which safety net will our EU institutions provide to fight possible increased unemployment? Even with the most controversial proposition rejected, and some questions unanswered, MEP Delvaux-Stehres affirmed she was pleased at the general adoption of her report, and once again stressed out the urgency of a common and shared legal framework on robotics and AI to shape an equal future society.

Sources:

  1. Hern, ‘Give robots ‘personhood’ status, EU committee argues’ retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/12/give-robots-personhood-status-eu-committee-argues
  2. EU Parliament Press release, ‘Robots and artificial intelligence: MEPs call for EU-wide liability rules’ retrieved from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20170210IPR61808/robots-and-artificial-intelligence-meps-call-for-eu-wide-liability-rules
  3. Valero, ‘Parliament plenary rejects universal basic income’ retrieved from https://www.euractiv.com/section/innovation-industry/news/parliament-plenary-rejects-universal-basic-income/
  4. Bulman, ‘EU to vote on declaring robots to be electronic persons’ retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/robots-eu-vote-electronic-persons-european-union-ai-artificial-intelligence-a7527106.html
  5. Viola, ‘The future of robotics and artificial intelligence in Europe’ retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/blog/future-robotics-and-artificial-intelligence-europe