European Parliament Debating “Electronic Persons Rights”

By Luisa Chainferber
Staff Writer

Recently there has been a possibility for the European Parliament to grant a special legal status of ‘electronic persons’, to the most refined autonomous robots.

In order to support the proposal, the European Parliament Resolution on Civil Law Rules of Robotics argued that “at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons.” They then stated these robots are “responsible for making good any damage they may cause, and possibly applying an electronic personality to cases where robots make autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently.” The resolution also established that robots must be registered with authorities, a measure to make sure they do not cause damages.

If approved, this legal status would be similar to corporate personhood, which is the legal notion that a corporation, separately from its associated human beings, has at least some of the legal rights and responsibilities enjoyed by natural persons. This would make each autonomous robot a single legal entity in the eyes of the state. According to CNBC, the debate has polarized the European Union Parliament, and even if there were enough support to approve the proposal, it would still be considered a non-binding resolution, since Parliament does not have the authority to introduce legislation.

Experts argued that giving robots legal status directly confronts human rights policy, as machines would hold prerogatives, such as the right to citizenship and dignity. About 150 experts in the fields of law, robotics, artificial intelligence, medical science, and ethics, opposed the proposal in an open letter and warned the European Commission that a robot’s legal status will help manufacturers to escape liability. The letter further explained this legal problem, stating, “This would be in contradiction with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

Instead of ‘electronic person’ status, the letter recommended that Parliament should limit health and safety risks for human beings, and argued human users and third parties should be the primary concern of all legal provisions.

Politico reports that the robot market could triple in value in the next five years, with estimates from $5.4 billion in 2018 to $14.9 billion by 2023. Overall, the industrial robot market could reach $40 billion by 2020. Robots have entered the second phase of evolution and can now complete tasks that earlier required human thinking skills, explaining the sudden boom.

Now as an increased portion of human labor is done by robots, the second phase of robotic evolution raised concerns about unemployment and the maintenance of social security systems. This becomes more concerning as the European population is aging quickly. Despite the concerns, Parliament did not accept a request for special income for those who may lose jobs due to automation.

As robotics advance in technological ability and market value, the field continues to spur public debates. As the Politico reports, Noel Sharkey, a co-founder of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, discussed the false notions that Sophia, the humanoid Saudi Arabian robot-citizen that opened the 2018 Munich Security Conference, can transmit. When asked about the future of the robot, Sharkey said, “When they start bringing it to the U.N. and giving nations the wrong idea of what robotics can do and where AI is at the moment it’s very, very dangerous.”

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