The EU Just Voted to Support Registering Advanced Robots

And some other suggestions for how robots can improve our lives.

by Jordan Pearson
Feb 16 2017, 5:25pm

The European Parliament voted Thursday to accept the recommendations of a wide-ranging report on robots and AI, including calls for a new body to study the economic and social changes they present, and a system for registering advanced robots. 

The report, prepared by the legal affairs committee, notes that robots stand to have an immense impact on society, and not all of it will be beneficial. 

For example, the report states that automation might not lead to newer and better jobs for the displaced—at least, not right away—and that low-skill workers like fast food workers are likely to be first on the chopping block. "Developing robotics may lead to a high concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a minority," the report states.

Read More: The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

But, with the right guidance, the report acknowledges that robots could be developed in a way that enhances people's lives and society as a whole. To that end, the report recommends the establishment of a "European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence" to provide guidance to governments. It also encourages greater funding for research into both advanced robotics and the effects it may have once unleashed. 

The committee's liaison officer, Mady Dalvaux of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, said in a statement that although she was pleased with the vote result, she was disheartened by right-wing pushback. "I am also disappointed that the right-wing coalition [...] refused to take account of possible negative consequences on the job market."

The concerns reflected in the report should be familiar to people in North America. Fast food CEO Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump's former labor secretary pick, famously came out in favour of automation. He said in 2016: "[Robots are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case." 

Puzder's words here come off more like a threat to workers asking for vacations than an ode to the wonders of technology, illustrating why the use of robotics in various industries will need some guidelines to ensure that workers don't get short-changed. 

The EU report also notes that, legally speaking, autonomous robots pose a problem when it comes time to sue. After all, when a robot car makes a mistake, do you sue the GPS manufacturer? The dealer? Elon Musk? The report states that all of this confusion raises the question of whether there should be a new legal category for autonomous robots, and recommends that formal definitions for various types of robots be established. 

Once that's done (and, believe it or not, defining a robot is no easy task), the report recommends that the EU implement a registration system for advanced robots. 

The report has had a long road to get to today's vote in parliament, and was debated on Wednesday. Now, the EU is set to get serious about robots. 

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .