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The laws and ethics of robotics

An EU project looked at what laws and regulations are needed for robotic technology.

Digital Economy

Following the first computers, the idea of thinking machines became a staple of science fiction. Even very early on it was understood that such machines would need some governing framework. The subject of robotics law was seriously considered by European legal scholars through the 1980s. However, most of the studies related to agent technology in software systems and, although investigations addressed important legal themes to be covered by future robotics laws, the field was still more science fiction than actuality. The first investigation to address these issues was the EU-funded project, 'Regulating emerging robotic technologies in Europe: Robotics facing law and ethics' (ROBOLAW). Its main aims included identifying the legal and ethical implications of emerging robotic technologies, in terms of whether existing frameworks are adequate given the state of the technologies. Secondly, research took into account how developments in robotics affect European social values. Apart from robotics as conventionally understood, ROBOLAW also considered the legal status of pioneering technologies such as nanotechnologies, neuroprostheses and brain-computer interfaces. The study employed multidisciplinary methods and comparative analyses, and has highlighted areas of European regulation needing reform. ROBOLAW held a workshop where invited speakers addressed these issues. The outcome of these discussions was published as an extensive reference, which also included a research methodology. Since then, a ROBOLAW Series has been successfully published. The project also developed a structure of applicable technologies depending on level of autonomy, task performed, relationship to humans and other criteria. This taxonomy, and associated case study analysis, will help focus the legal questions, especially in terms of rights. A report published by ROBOLAW examines how robotic technologies affect European rights. A discussion journal article focused on industrial robotics, assistive technology and biomedical robotics. The broad issues of these publications, and the project's other workshops, focused on how the technologies affect our conception of humanity, and how they may be designed to safeguard human values. Project outcomes can also be applied to a wide range of other technologies. ROBOLAW outcomes should help protect rights affected by new technologies.


Ethics, robotics, robotics law, robotic technologies, social values

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