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“Grasp future and give robots legal status, EU is told”: Diverse dilemmas!

November 9, 2014

Hannah Devlin, Science Editor at The Times, recently reported that robots could be granted legal “personhood” under recommendations made to the European parliament on how intelligent robotic systems should be governed in the future.

Is there a broad spectrum of differentiation emerging ranging from personhood to humanhood with robots, chimpanzees and cetaceans adding to the growing list? How may it impact first mover, the Homo sapiens is anybody’s guess?

It may be desirable for robotic companions to carry out financial transactions independently, which would require them to have a legal status similar to that of a corporation. Robots could also be held liable for damage to property or injuries they cause, to shield the owner from financial responsibility, the review document suggests.

“At the moment robots can only act as ‘mere tools’, meaning the legal responsibility for the robot’s actions rests with its human ‘master’. This might restrict robotic companions for the elderly and make it hard for them to buy groceries, collect medication or carry out bank transactions on their owner’s behalf.”

Dr Andrea Bertolini, of Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, who helped draft the recommendations according to The Times, said they reflected the changing roles of robots in society. “In Pisa, they are developing a robot that is capable of travelling from your home to the grocery store and paying for goods that it needs. In cases like this you may want to consider the robot as a legal person that is able to enter into a contract”, he said.

“The recommended changes in status were purely technical rather than an endorsement of robot rights or a suggestion that robots would be genuinely autonomous.” He added, “There are futurists who talk about the rights to marry robots – that’s not what we’re getting into”.

The European Commission asked the RoboLaw consortium to look at how robotic and human enhancement technologies could be safely and successfully introduced into society. Presenting their findings to the European parliament recently, the authors said that the lack of appropriate regulations might be stifling progress in robotics already, according to Devlin.

“The question of who pays for damages is the largest obstacle to driverless vehicles in our society”, according to Dr Bertolini. “Driverless cars could reduce accidents by 97 per cent”, he believes, “but under present legislation the manufacturer could be liable for accidents”.

Devlin also quotes Julia Reda, a German MEP who believes robot governance is still seen as “fringe interest” despite their having a big impact. “It’s important that robolaw becomes a political discussion at an early stage,” she said. “Some things that might seem extremely weird to us now could become beneficial in the near future.”

While humans navigate through this evolving humanhood / personhood dilemma (hopefully welcoming the emerging diversity) and robolawyers pen their script, insurers and HR professionals must get their act right in dealing with what’s set to become an increasingly vigorous knock on their doors.

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