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The Wild West of Robot Law

Credit: DM7/Adobe

Credit: DM7/Adobe

By Matthew Rimmer

Robots remain a law unto themselves, with legal frontiers including issues such as liability, copyright and even the taxing of robots much like the human workers they are replacing.

Westworld is a new American science fiction show that taps into our hopes and fears about robots. The show imagines a Wild West theme park populated by androids and robots that indulge the dreams and fantasies of wealthy human visitors. Westworld is a mediation upon the law, ethics and social norms as they apply to robots.

Robotics is a disruptive technology that is transforming our society and economy. In transport we already see autonomous vehicles, drones and aquabots; robots have been deployed in agriculture, hospitals and the environment; and they increasingly feature in civilian law enforcement and the battlefield. While robots have been increasingly promoted as part of Australia’s “ideas boom”, there has also been anxiety about how robotics and artificial intelligence will affect education and employment.

There has been a growing debate about the regulation of robots across a range of contexts. In many respects, robotics remains like the Wild West – a frontier that is as much regulated by social norms and the marketplace as by legal rules. Policy-makers, lawyers, philosophers and other experts have been grappling with the legal, ethical and public policy challenges posed by robotics, with Robot Law co-editor A. Michael Froomkin observing that “the increasing sophistication of robots and their widespread deployment ... requires rethinking a wide variety of philosophical and public policy issues, interacts uneasily with existing legal regimes, and thus may counsel changes in policy and in law”.

In January this year, the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee recommended that law reform should address the fast-evolving field of robotics. The report, approved by a vote of 17–2 with two abstentions, looks at robotics-related issues such as liability, safety and changes in the labour market. Rapporteur Mady Delvaux said: “A growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics. In order to address this reality and to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework.”

The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee drafted a motion for a European Parliament resolution. The motion noted that “from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster to the classical myth of Pygmalion, through the story of Prague’s Golem to the robot of Karel Čapek, who coined the word, people have fantasised about the possibility of building intelligent machines, more often than not androids with human features”.

The Committee observed: “Now that humankind stands on the threshold of an era when ever more sophisticated robots, bots, androids and other manifestations of artificial intelligence seem poised to unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched, it is vitally important for the legislature to consider all its implications”.

The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee called for the establishment of a definition and classification of “smart robots” and for their registration. The Committee asked for an in-depth evaluation of liability regimes for robots and insurance schemes. The Committee asked for a Charter of Robotics that would include a code of ethical conduct for robotics engineers. In particular, the Committee highlighted the importance of fundamental rights, the precautionary principle, inclusiveness, accountability, safety, reversibility, privacy and cost–benefit analysis. The Committee also called for a licensing scheme for designers of robots, and a licensing scheme for users of robots.

There has been significant debate about the impact of robots, automation and artificial intelligence upon employment. Optimists hope that the robotics revolution will result in the creation of new jobs, while pessimists fear that automation will lead to redundancies and underemployment across a range of industries.

One policy recommendation has been that there should be a robot tax to generate funds for the training of workers who are displaced by automation in areas such as manufacturing. Bill Gates has been enthusiastic about the idea of taxing robotics:

Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.

However, critics have complained that special forms of taxation for robots would discourage research, development and innovation.

In the field of intellectual property law there has been much consternation about how to address robotics, artificial intelligence and automation, with robotics poses complicated questions for copyright law over authorship, ownership and creativity. While the High Court of Australia has insisted upon the need for human authorship of copyright works, in the United States a number of jurists and legal theorists have considered ways and means by which robotics and artificial intelligence could be accommodated within copyright law. Meanwhile the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee has demanded the elaboration of criteria to establish “own intellectual creation” of copyrightable works produced by computers or robots.

There have also been battles over industrial property. The makers of the film RoboCop have asserted their trademark against providers of security services. Lucasfilm – the makers of the Star Wars franchise – trademarked the word“droid” in 1977.

In the field of patent law there has been significant patent activity involving robotics. The 2015 World Intellectual Property Organization’s report on breakthrough innovation charts the geography of patent activity in the area of robotics. Japanese, Korean and German companies dominate the top rankings for patents filed in the area of robotics.

In response to such intellectual property claims in the technological field, some have instead looked to open licensing in respect of robotics.

There has also been a great discussion about liability rules in respect of robotics. There has been significant debate over legal rules regarding transportation, with significant debate over the road rules for autonomous vehicles such as Google’s self-driving car. Likewise, drones have raised challenging policy questions for aviation rules, and the appearance of aquabots has posed intriguing questions for the law of the sea. The adoption of robotics in agriculture has also raised questions about automation.

In the field of health care, the use of robotics promises to improve health outcomes for patients. Yet, given past conflicts over medical liability, there is a need to lay down appropriate rules, standards and codes about the use of robotics in the areas of surgery, patient care and prosthetics.

As well as the discussion about civilian uses of robots, there has also been much interest in the increasing use of robots by law enforcement agencies. At an international level there has been deep disquiet about the use of drone warfare by major superpowers, and a movement to ban “killer robots”.

Such political, legal and ethical developments to develop new regulatory rules for robots represent an effort to civilise the wild west of robotics lest Westworld becomes a reality rather than a dystopian fantasy.


Matthew Rimmer is a Professor in Intellectual Property and Innovation Law at Queensland University of Technology.