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EU proposal would classify robots as 'electronic persons'

Parliamentary motion aims to create a legal framework for automation, amid concerns over unemployment and social security

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A new proposal from the European Parliament calls for working robots to be classified as "electronic persons," and for their owners to pay social security on their behalf. The draft motion, published online this month, aims to address the new challenges that Europe's robotic workforce will present as robot technology becomes more pervasive and intelligent. The proposal says growing automation will require new frameworks for taxation and legal liability, but as Reuters reports, it faces opposition from some robotics companies.

The rise in automation and artificial intelligence has raised concerns in Europe and elsewhere over economic effects, including unemployment, inequality, and social security systems. The proposal aims to address those concerns with a legal framework that would consider "that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations."

"We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics."

It also calls for companies to declare the money they saved in social security by replacing human workers with robots, and for the creation of a European robotics agency to provide "technical, ethical and regulatory expertise." All smart autonomous robots would be classified under a central registry, with funds to cover their liability, and robot owners and manufacturers would be required to buy insurance.

VDMA, a German industry group that represents major robot manufacturers, says it's too early to create such a legal framework for robots, adding that it could hinder innovation. Patrick Schwarzkopf, VDMA's managing director for robotics, told reporters at a Munich trade show that a framework could arise "in 50 years, but not in 10 years."

"our market will be invaded by robots from outside."

"We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics," Schwarzkopf added.

The proposed measures would be non-binding, and it's not yet clear whether it will gain enough support in Parliament to pass. But supporters of the motion say Europe needs a coherent framework to support and regulate robotics if it wants to keep pace with the rest of the world.

"The US, China, Korea and Japan have very ambitious projects," Mady Delvaux, an MP from Luxembourg and the motion's rapporteur, said in an interview published to the European Parliament website last year. "If we do not create the legal framework for the development of robotics, our market will be invaded by robots from outside."