European legislators debate robot rights for autonomous vehicles

Granting robots some form of personhood could help settle disputes about who is responsible for their actions, legislators say

Robots should one day have rights as "electronic persons," members of the European Parliament recommended Thursday -- but not until the machines are all fitted with "kill" switches to shut them down in an emergency.

Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee wants the European Commission to propose legislation that will settle a number of ethical and liability issues in the field of robotics -- including who is to blame when an autonomous vehicle is involved in a collision.

Granting the more sophisticated autonomous robots some kind of electronic personhood could settle issues of who is responsible for their actions, the committee suggested. More urgent than the question of robot rights, though, is the setting up of an obligatory insurance scheme that would pay out to the victims of a self-driving car if it caused an accident in the European Union.

The MEPs also want an EU agency to advise on the technical, ethical and regulatory issues around robotics, and a voluntary ethical code of conduct for those who design and work with robots. That code should include a requirement that designers put some kind of "kill" switch in their robots so that they can be shut down in an emergency.

"We urgently need to create a robust European legal framework," said the committee's rapporteur, Made Delvaux.

That urgency, the MEPs said, is not so much because autonomous robots are likely to run amok any time soon, but rather that if the EU doesn't move first, it will end up having to follow rules set by other countries.

Intriguingly, tax figures among the issues the MEPs want the Commission to take into consideration. For robots wanting the same rights as people, it could be a case of no representation without taxation.

The full Parliament will vote on the committee's recommendation next month, but even if it agrees, the Commission is under no obligation to follow such a request for legislation.

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