Science fiction likes to depict robots as autonomous machines, capable of making their own decisions and often expressing their own personalities. Yet we also tend to think of robots as property, and as lacking the kind of rights that we reserve for people.
But if a machine can think, decide and act on its own volition, if it can be harmed or held responsible for its actions, should we stop treating it like property and start treating it more like a person with rights?
What if a robot achieves true self-awareness? Should it have equal rights with us and the same protection under the law, or at least something similar?
These are some of the issues being discussed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs. Last year it released a draft report and motion calling for a set of civil law rules on robotics regulating their manufacture, use, autonomy and impact upon society.
Of the legal solutions proposed, perhaps most interesting was the suggestion of creating a legal status of “electronic persons” for the most sophisticated robots.
The report acknowledged that improvements in the autonomous and cognitive abilities of robots makes them more than simple tools, and makes ordinary rules on liability, such as contractual and tort liability, insufficient for handling them.
For example, the current EU directive on liability for harm by robots only covers foreseeable damage caused by manufacturing defects. In these cases, the manufacturer is responsible. However, when robots are able to learn and adapt to their environment in unpredictable ways, it’s harder for a manufacturer to foresee problems that could cause harm.
The report also questions about whether or not sufficiently sophisticated robots should be regarded as natural persons, legal persons (like corporations), animals or objects. Rather than lumping them into an existing category, it proposes that a new category of “electronic person” is more appropriate.