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Robot jurisprudence: How to judge a ’bot; why it’s covered, by The Economist

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The report's authors warn against “excessively restrictive” legislation that can stifle innovation, recommending a “functional perspective” that focuses on practical effects and incentives embodied in any new robot-specific laws. An approach to broad, over-arching robot legislation—such as Asimov's "three laws of robotics"—is likely to fail, says Andrea Bertolini, of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, in Pisa, Italy, which led the consortium. Instead, ad hoc legislation could be used to steer the development of the market in specific directions. That is an important suggestion when the term "robot" covers such a diversity of devices, from medical robots to vacuum cleaners to prostheses.

Stringent product-safety rules, for example, might discourage development of advanced prostheses and exoskeletons, a set of technologies that the European Union is keen to support, given its legal and policy commitment to disability rights. Liability exemptions for manufacturers could relieve some pressure. “No-fault” plans, especially in cases where an insurance market for robotic devices is difficult to establish, could help too. Manufacturers and governments could pay into a compensation fund used if mishaps occur.

Prostheses also raise questions around the legal distinction between person and property, but the report suggests that there is no advantage to creating a new category between human and machine. As Dr Bertolini puts it: “a human with a prosthesis is still a human.” But what of rights for the machines themselves? Dr Bertolini says that there are several arguments against granting them. Firstly, artificial intelligence is still far from surpassing that of humans. More philosophically, any autonomy that robots gain is designed and granted by humans. Thus, the argument goes, robots are to be considered objects, not subjects; the question of rights then disappears. On the other hand, the report says that in limited circumstances, robots might be granted a legal status similar to a corporation, perhaps enabling robots to perform legal transactions (but raises the question of how a robot can be legally represented in court).

Feels like we are entering a world of complexity.