The robot named RoboThespian Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Europe’s Chance to Lead on Robotics and AI

Artificial intelligence could be either the best or the worst thing that ever happened to mankind. To prepare for the profound changes to lives and livelihoods that lie ahead, the European Union should start establishing rules to protect all Europeans – and give the rest of the world a model to follow.

BRUSSELS – At least since Mary Shelley created Victor Frankenstein and his iconic monster in 1818, humans have had a morbid fascination with man-made beings that could threaten our existence. From the American television adaptation of “Westworld,” which depicts an amusement park populated by androids, to the “Terminator” films, in which super-intelligent machines aim to destroy mankind, we often indulge the paranoid fantasy that our own technological creations might turn on us.

In Homo Deus, Hebrew University’s Yuval Noah Harari argues that existing technological advances have already put mankind on a path toward its own demise. Developments in artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms that make better decisions than humans, and genetic engineering all imply that most human beings will be superfluous in the not-too-distant future.

At the Web Summit conference in Lisbon last month, the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking addressed the threats as well as the opportunities that lie ahead. “Success in creating effective AI,” Hawking said, “could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst.” The problem, he added, is that, “We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

Despite their stark warnings about the possible implications of existing technologies, however, both Hawking and Harari believe that we still have time to shape the future for ourselves. The changes ahead will raise a number of pertinent questions for policymakers. What will the spread of robotics and AI mean for defense and security or the future of employment? And what rules can ensure that these innovations are collectively beneficial?

So far, mainstream political debate about these questions has been limited. That is not surprising: as we saw with animal cloning, politics tends to lag behind science. In the European Union, single-market regulations are often adopted years after the scientific breakthroughs that made them necessary. But when it comes to robotics and AI, we cannot afford to hesitate.

Fortunately, as Hawking pointed out, some European policymakers have already begun legislative work on this front. In February of this year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of new rules governing AI and robotics. We are asking the European Commission to propose measures that will maximize the economic benefits of these technologies, while also guaranteeing a standard level of safety and security. Although I disagree with some of the proposals currently on offer, the fact that we are at least having a debate on the matter is a positive development.

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While other countries are also considering new rules for robots and AI, the EU has a unique opportunity to take the lead. By acting now, we can ensure that the EU will not be forced to follow regulatory frameworks set by other countries. Ultimately, global rules will be required; and Europe has a chance to set the standard for what they should look like.

For starters, we will soon need a specific legal status for robots, so that we can determine who is liable for any damage they may cause. Moreover, as the Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has warned, robotics and advanced algorithms will likely eliminate many jobs. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates that five million jobs across 15 developed countries will be lost to automation by 2020.

Given that ongoing changes in the means of production have already kick-started this trend, Gates and some in the European Parliament have suggested that robots be taxed to pay for human services. Whether that is the best solution is now the topic of much debate; but, clearly, some kind of compromise will need to be made.

Robotics and AI will also raise profound ethical issues for liberal politicians, particularly with respect to privacy and safety. Fortunately, there is a broader political consensus on this issue than on taxation. The European Parliament has proposed a voluntary code of conduct for engineers and others working in the field of robotics. Ethical as well as legal standards are needed to ensure that robots and related technologies are designed with respect for human dignity in mind.

Lastly, the European Parliament has called on the European Commission to consider creating a new EU-level agency for robotics and AI, to provide public officials with technical, ethical, and regulatory expertise. To my mind, this would be a sensible step forward, given that an estimated 30% of the world’s leading companies will employ a chief robotics officer by 2019.

We can be almost certain that today’s technological advances will have a profound effect on our lives and livelihoods, akin to a new Industrial Revolution. By establishing regulations and standards now, the EU can ensure that all Europeans will benefit from the coming changes, rather than be engulfed by chaos.