Have you been following the advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics? There are some really fascinating developments in the fields. Just this week I’ve read about artificially intelligent systems used to identify people likely to commit a crime (before it happens); robotics systems being used in construction; unmanned aerial vehicles; self-driving cars; and, of course, it seems a week cannot go by without a new headline about sex robots.
Last Friday, I found some news stories that were really interesting. It appears a 2017 report from the European Commission had “a paragraph of text buried deep in a European Parliament report, that advised creating a ‘legal status for robots,'” according to this article from The Daily Mail.
I found this quite fascinating and had to dig deeper. Why would we need to develop a legal status for robots? What would be the point? An article in Futurism stated, “If a robot, acting autonomously injures or otherwise wrongs a human, who will be held responsible? Some European lawmakers think that the best way to resolve this question will be to give robots ‘electronic personalities,’ a form of legal person-hood.”
To me, there is a simple answer to this topic. The owner and/or the manufacturer would be held liable. Why would society need something beyond existing negligence, product liability, and consumer protection laws?
According to the report, the European Commission does not want to give robots legal status equal to humans. Rather, they want to give them a status similar to corporations. The concern doesn’t seem to apply to your automation-style robots, but rather those capable of self-learning.
I contend we do not need new theories of liability to address this issue. It should be handled just like owning an automobile. As the owner of a car, I must have it insured. Insurance covers personal injury and property damage caused by the vehicle if I am driving it or if another driver is covered by my policy. If the vehicle malfunctions and causes damage due to a manufacturing, design, or warning defect, then I sue the manufacturer (or another injured party may sue the manufacturer). As such, owner and manufacturer are the responsible parties. My automobile doesn’t require its own legal status.
A robot, sentient or not, does not require its own legal status. It can be insured just like an automobile and the owner should be responsible for insuring the equipment. Furthermore, if it malfunctions and causes harm, the manufacturer can be held liable for any product defects.
I have asked for some input on this topic from a couple of our Experts.com members. At the time of this writing we have received a response from one expert. Dr. Harry Direen, PhD, PE, has a wide variety of expertise including electronic systems, control systems, robotics, software, signal processing, UAV’s/drones, and more. I encourage you to check out his company DireenTech.
Several questions were posited to Dr. Direen. Please see the questions and answers below.
What the expert has to say:
Me: Do you see any need for creating a legal status for robots?
Dr. Direen: No… robots are not humans, they are machines. Despite the hype, I do not believe robot technology is anywhere near thinking on their own or being responsible for their actions.
Me: Are there any positive reasons to create a legal status for robots?
Dr. Direen: No, not that I know of.
Me: Are there any negatives you can think of in creating a legal status?
Dr. Direen: Yes, as a society we start legally blurring the lines between humans and the machines we create. I don’t believe we elevate humans in the process, but just the opposite. We advance the myth that humans are little more than carbon based machines with no more value than the machines we create rather than highly valued creations of our Creator.
Me: Is there any reason damage caused by robots cannot be addressed by existing legal principles such as product liability (manufacturing, design, or warning defects)?
Dr. Direen: No. Giving robots legal status would simply be an excuse to divorce engineers, designers, and manufactures from the responsibility of their products.
Me: If a robot were to fail and cause personal or property damage, would a forensic investigation apply the same principles as any other failure analysis investigation?
Dr. Direen: Yes, a robot is just a piece of technology like any other.
So there you have it. Dr. Direen and I seem to be in agreement. Existing legal and investigatory principles should apply to robots. There is no need to provide additional legal protections to machinery.
What do you think? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts. It is a fascinating topic. Robotics is a field where I anticipate a great deal of future litigation. As the topic evolves, I’m certain we’ll be discussing it in greater depth.