The idea of being outwitted by computers and controlled by intelligent robots brings to mind stories from film, television and science fiction novels. Movies like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘I Robot’ and more recently the television series ‘Humans’ and ‘Westworld’ feature robots that become smarter than the humans and start to gain control. These scenarios are not as far-fetched as we may think and as robots become more common we will witness a profound effect on our societies, not unlike that of the industrial revolution.
Recognising that our daily lives will inevitably be affected by robotics, the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee last month discussed how we can ensure that robots are, and will remain, in the service of humans. The Committee highlighted the need for new EU rules to address issues raised by the fast-evolving development of robotics - issues such as compliance with ethical standards and liability for accidents involving driverless cars. Also considered was the broader impact of the increasing use of robotics on the labour market.
MEPs stressed that while fully exploiting the economic potential of robotics and artificial intelligence the EU must also take the lead on regulatory standards and create EU-wide rules that guarantee a standard level of safety and security. To this end MEPs urged the Commission to consider creating a European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence to supply public authorities with technical, ethical and regulatory expertise.
They also proposed a voluntary ethical conduct code to regulate who would be accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts of robotics and ensure that they operate in accordance with legal, safety and ethical standards. An example of this was the suggestion that robot designer should include “kill” switches for turning robots off during an emergency.
And what about the ownership of what a super-intelligent computer or robot might create. Is it the property of its creator? If so then what would happen should the robot be sold or adapted. Does it belong to the robot? Not an easy question to answer.
I, and my fellow Labour MEPs believe that it is important that we look at new models to manage society in a world where robots do more and more of the work. It will be a revolution, but one that if managed intelligently and in a controlled way can bring huge benefits to our societies with new jobs in research and innovation, robots performing dangerous tasks, a lower risk of car accidents by excluding human error and smarter energy consumption.
Clearly however, we need to make sure these benefits outweigh the challenges and threats. It’s not hard to fall prey to the nightmare vision of sci-fi horror and be terrified of the human race losing control to intelligent, perfectly created robots. While this could be a real danger, more importantly the humans presently in a position of power and control need to ensure that the robotic revolution does not mean greater unemployment and an even greater gap between rich and poor in our societies.