Is it Time to Regulate the Robotics Race? The E.U. Thinks So

Catherine Baumgartner – In a world with hitchhiking robots and self-driving cars, it appears as if artificial intelligence (“A.I.”) can do anything—even run for president. This potential science-fiction movie plot may no longer be far from reality.

Earlier this month the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee adopted a report on legal issues surrounding Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. However, it will need the full house’s absolute majority vote to be effective. The report calls for comprehensive regulation concerning potential legal, ethical, and economic considerations in an A.I.-centric future.

Among other concerns, the report hopes to “ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans.” Buzz-worthy proposals include giving robots their own legal status, prohibiting robots from looking human, and requiring robot “kill” switches. The report suggests that extensive regulation is necessary to keep the European Union’s robotics market competitive, but the extent of the proposals could deter some companies.

Former President Obama advocated for a different approach in the United States: heavy government investment now, regulation later. The White House had been increasingly vocal about robotics during his administration. Last year it released two reports considering A.I. and the economy, and Obama guest-edited Wired’s November issue. There, he stated that A.I. innovators’ “general attitude, understandably, is, ‘The last thing we want is a bunch of bureaucrats slowing us down as we chase the unicorn out there.’” Investors with this attitude might be reluctant to expose themselves to the time, cost, and liability required to comply with the European Parliament’s proposal.

Some commentators are concerned about A.I.’s future under President Trump, suggesting that he could implement policies to thwart A.I.’s development to protect would-be automated jobs. However, when asked about workers losing jobs to robots, Trump seemed enthusiastic about the United States growing its robotics industry. While this enthusiasm may seem incompatible with Trump’s goal of bringing back manufacturing jobs, his push to bring overseas factories back to the United States will likely accelerate automation.

With the Trump administration now in office, the government’s role in the robotics race remains unclear. In the meantime, scholars and investors are turning their attention to A.I.’s ethical and interdisciplinary considerations. MIT and Harvard University are the founding institutions for a new public interest initiative on artificial intelligence. The initiative, called the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, emphasizes interdisciplinary research and public outreach. Similarly, Carnegie Mellon University will develop a research center dedicated to artificial intelligence’s ethical considerations.

While A.I. is certainly the future, some believe that the extent of robotics research and regulation is getting ahead of itself. Attendees at a recent conference dedicated to the ethics of companion robots described it as pointless, with one member stating that “[w]hat [they] are developing is very crude and almost no one wants it.” However, developments like a raptor-esque robot that can empty dishwashers and serve beer should probably not be underestimated. Either way, there will likely be a day when regulation like the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee’s proposal will be the norm.

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