Rage against the machine

Szerző: Marcell Olajos
Dátum: 2017. május 5.

Ez a cikk több mint egy éve került publikálásra. A cikkben szereplő információk a megjelenéskor pontosak voltak, de mára elavultak lehetnek.

The robots haven’t just arrived to the workplace – now they are expanding skills, showing emotions, and interacting with us on a higher level. The advances happening in technology are visible, and it’s becoming evident that our „co-workers” are going to be machines and algorithms. The robots are coming and they coming fast – but for the problems coming with them, we have no legal answers whatsoever. Although these cases do not occur on a daily basis yet, it’s only a matter of time that we need to make the regulations for the robots in our society.

E dolgozat a Siegler Ügyvédi Iroda/Weil, Gotshal & Manges, az Új Jogtár és az Ars Boni által meghirdetett 2016. évi cikkíró-pályázat keretében született.

Nowadays we use the word „robot” way too often– robotic vacuum cleaners, various kitchen appliances, self-driving cars, drones, R2D2 from Star Wars, all the same. Robots, as a definition, in the next years are probably separate from its original meaning, and from the legal point of view, this new meaning brings a number of interesting questions. One thing we can agree on: a vacuum cleaner that goes around the room blindly and a semi-automatic humanoid are not the same thing.


It’s quite hard to define the term in general. One definition made by the Robot Institute of America (RIA) says that the robot is a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks – as we can see this statement considerably outdated. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) distinguishes two principal services by robots, those what are servicing humans (personal safeguarding, entertainment), and servicing equipment (maintenance, repair, cleaning) and focusing on a task. A service robot, per definition, a robot which operates semi or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations. In contrast to these service robots, social robots were explicitly developed for the interaction of humans and robots to support a human-like interaction.

Having a proper definition is really important, but it’s also essential to take a closer look on the already existing problems and ideas. Legal scholars have been writing about the law-related issues of robotics here and there for some time, but these usually address only one or more problems of a single technology like drones, self-driving cars or surgical robots. This technology or issue specific research, however, does not really explain much about the robots in across the law, mainly because they not examined in the context of the major legal issues like civil or criminal liability, legal personhood, enforcement, intellectual property, race and gender questions or last but not least, privacy.


Kate Darling, an intellectual property research specialist at the MIT Media Lab presented her paper „Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots” at the University of Miami’s We Robot Conference 2016. In it, Darling explores the reasons why we might consider granting limited legal protections to social robots designed to interact with human beings. Even if this idea maybe sounds extreme at the moment, first let’s see what is behind it…

Darling’s idea based on the fact, that the key feature of social robots is to interact with people and to trigger emotions, and studies indicate that humans already interact differently with social robots than they do with other objects. This emotional response from the human brain built on three factors: first is the physicality. For example, people can fall in love even in video game characters, yet it’s much easier if they have a physical materialization. The second is perceived autonomous movement: although a robotic vacuum cleaner has no social skills at all, studies showed, that just the fact that it moves around randomly makes people to talk to it, and feel bad for it when it gets stuck under the furniture. The third is the social behavior: social robots are designed to look cute, and they are also able to show mimic cues that we subconsciously associate with certain feelings.

According to Darling, the reason we should granting limited legal protections to them, is much like the legal protections granted to animals. While it’s obvious, that animals can feel pain just as we do, the desire to protect those animals indicates that we probably care more about our own emotional state than any objective biological criteria. We just feel natural discomfort seeing a reaction that we associate with suffering, especially if that reaction comes from something we have an emotional connection with. On the other hand, while robots are not alive, if something looks like a human, thinks like a human it should not be treated as a simple object by the law, just to discourage a cruel behavior towards them which could be harmful in other contexts. The analogy used here is based on the Kantian philosophical argument: for preventing cruelty to animals is fundamental, because our actions towards non-humans reflect our morality – if we treat animals in inhumane ways, we become inhumane persons. This logically extends to the treatment of robot companions.


The challenges robots pose will only become more acute in light of the explosive growth of the robotics industry over the next decade. Nowadays, and especially in the short future, robots going to leave the factories and the field of war and entering our roads, skies, offices, and homes. One of the aforementioned legal issues is the question of liability. Although in Hungary we haven’t had any court case related to robots yet, courts in the US have had to make decisions involving robots many times. Ryan Calo, assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, in his paper „Robots in American Law” declared that the courts in the US have mostly treated robots as mindless machines, and held humans responsible for their action. Calo’s opinion about these cases lately is, that the role of the robot was not really in the focus: the case would like have come out the same way, where the technology at issue is not a robot but any other object or concept. Many of these cases are quite interesting though. In Robotic Vision Systems, Inc. v. Cybo System, Inc. for example a client of a robotics company sued, because instead of human experts, they sent two robots to resolve an installation problem. The client found the robots annoying and unhelpful, and as the next step, they sued for breach of contract. In the Reinhardt v. Fuller case, a criminal fired four shotgun blasts at a police robot during his arrest, not to mention those cases where robots have repeatedly caused injures on a filming set by behaving unexpectedly. Nevertheless, these cases are mostly still based on the principles of contract and criminal law, what makes them interesting, that they turn in some way on the unique features of robots.


In his work, Calo distinguish sharply between the robots and artificial intelligence (AI) when a problem posed by robotics law appears. The Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, Jack B. Balkin thinks about this statement a bit differently. According to Balkin, as innovation proceeds, the distinction between these two kinds of technologies may be far less important to the law than it seem right now, especially because it’s quite likely that these two technologies will increasingly blur. He says that the two key problem that robotics and AI present for law is how to distribute human rights and responsibilities that arise from the actions of non-humans. The change in this process is, that robots are becoming more capable of acting and thinking for themselves.

Through the mixture of sophisticated sensing, high-level processing and the ability to act and intervene in the environment, ICT systems become more autonomous, and these robots are couldn’t be handled just as a simple object, controlled by a living person. The more autonomous systems we have, the less they can be considered a simple tool in the hand of the owner or the manufacturer. In the current liability regulation, a legal entity, like a person or a company has the full responsibility, in case of a malfunction-caused accident happens. If we want to see a situation like this through the eyes of the law, this problem can be negotiable among the term of non-contractual liability, when an agent causing damage as a result of the violation of a right or an interest which is legally protected independently of the existence of a contract. The two rules which are important in this context is the product liability, where the creator of a product is liable for an error, and the „user-error”, where the user of a product is liable for a behavior that leads to a damage. Sadly, these boundaries between liability for harmful actions and product liability is really hard to find, so we have to specify the liable with adequate, case by case analysis.


It is not easy to draw a conclusion on these abovementioned issues. While the technology, as always, keeps one step ahead of the law, the first thing would be to expect more from a robot than just a programmable machine, by definition incapable of spontaneity. True, this is only the beginning of the story of the robots or artificial intelligence and the law, on the other hand, now we would have the chance to overtake on the already foreseeable problems.

I think the key is to make the proper regulation for the process of developing these new technologies. Industrial-specific directives and standards, which are, instead of holding back the new inventions, giving new guidelines to the developers and protecting the users. Without a doubt, we have a slow, but steady progression regarding to the legislation of the upcoming technologies – think about the recent regulation of drones or self-driving cars.

Notwithstanding, if you look at the big picture, it’s quite possible that these elements of the current robotics are just one specific applications of a complex technology; and what we would really need is a general framework, not a unique response for the individual inventions.

Time will tell.

Források, felhasznált irodalom:

Jack B. Balkin: The Path of Robotics Law


Hegel – Muhl – Wrede: Understanding social robots


Ryan Calo: Robots in American Law


Kate Darling: Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots: The Effects of Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Violent Behavior Towards Robotic Objects


Bjoern Juretzki: Legal issues of advanced robots and autonomous systems


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