By Victor Negrescu, MEP and member of the ITRE, BUDG and JURI Committees in the European Parliament
The robotics debate at a European level is not a job for the faint hearted. It’s a topic of sense and sensibilities that goes beyond robotics, since, rightfully, we are discussing not only issues that have to do with innovation and productivity, but also the future of individual people and the job market. The European Union recognises the great potential robotics has and the economic value it will bring while also changing the face of society as we know it. Due to this fact, MEPs are asking the European Commission to establish rules and legislation on artificial intelligence. The EU should be the main actor in setting these standards, in order not to get to the point where it might have to follow regulations set by third countries - Japan, the US, China and South Korea, are considering regulatory measures related to robotics and artificial intelligence. In terms of robotics, the EU must rediscover its leadership as a regulatory powerhouse.
The robotics debate is not just about progress and fast pace technological development; it also raises serious liability issues such as self-driving cars. Already, manufacturers including Volvo, Google, and Mercedes say they will accept full liability if their autonomous vehicles cause a collision. Moreover, controversy has been rising likewise on the topic of taxation on robots where opinions seem to be split. The robotics industry opposes the tax on the grounds that it would stunt innovation and competitiveness. The International Federation of Robotics argues that robotics will create new jobs by increasing productivity and offers the German car industry as an example.
The opposing vision, promoted by the progressives, is reliant on a vision of protecting people’s jobs: we need to help retrain these people and, as an MEP, I advocated studying the possibility of creating a minimum guaranteed revenue as a solution for job transition periods. We also need another set of guarantees to make this work sustainable: the debate in the European Parliament entails a voluntary ethical code of conduct on robotics for researchers and designers so that “robot design and use respect human dignity”. Privacy and data protection are also an issue. Robots need to exchange data in order to function and the question of who will have access to this data arises. Thus, these are just some of the reasons why it should be accompanied by a closely considered legislation. A need for a specialized institution is self-evident: when talks of creating a European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence began, I suggested the agency to be established in Romania where recently five new research centers in robotics have been established by major European companies. This way, Central and Eastern European countries could contribute actively to a debate that concerns them directly because of the profile of their economies.
The issue of robotics has sparked concerns for a while now. For instance, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warned of the dangers posed by artificial intelligence, which could potentially turn against humanity. Therefore, in order to balance these fears, the legal framework should clearly state that humanity should have the capacity to control its own creations. We need to get this right: the economic advantages offered by robotisation might boost production and set forth a new industrial revolution. This could be used also as leverage in order to return to Europe some of the businesses which have been relocated to emerging markets.
There are fears robotics might mean the loss of millions of jobs across Europe: not only low-skilled ones, but also in high added value sectors. Nowadays, our society would take a tremendous hit if that scenario was to happen and realistically speaking it could not reorganise itself fast enough to absorb such a level of unemployment. Therefore, the development of the robotics sector has to be strategically planned so that this does not lead to replacing workforce but supporting it. Workers should be trained on how to include robots in their daily activities so that artificial intelligence can slowly become a natural component of our society. Let us remember that we govern for the people not just for the sake of production, our social contract is based on respect for people’s welfare while adjusting our economy to 21st century needs. As MEPs, we strive to manage this important debate, by managing sensibilities that go beyond robotics, and delivering, via smart laws, the solutions for a successful and innovative society and economy.
Victor Negrescu is a Romanian progressive MEP, passionate about technology and innovation. He is member of the ITRE, BUDG and JURI Committees in the European Parliament.
The opinions expressed in this article do not represent the views of Euronews