Robots and Rule-makers


Recently, governments and rule-making bodies across Europe, the UK and globally, appear to be paying increasing attention to the need for the development of legislative and regulatory frameworks in the expanding field of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. With the growing use of these technologies across a wide range of industry sectors, we expect to see new laws and regulations being introduced in this area in the coming years, across a broad spectrum of legal disciplines including intellectual property rights and product liability.  Discussed below are some recent developments in this area in the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan.

European Union

The European Commission’s Legal Affairs Committee recently published a report calling for EU-wide rules governing AI and robotics[1]. Rapporteur Mady Delvaux (S&D, LU) 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 Committee makes certain suggestions and recommendations including:

  • Regulator – a new pan-European agency to regulate AI and robotics, with mandatory registration of “smart autonomous robots”.
  • Legal status or personhood – the creation of a distinct legal status for AI and robots.
  • Social Impact – recognising the potential of “big societal changes” resulting from AI and robotics, especially in the labour markets, the Committee urges the Commission to closely follow such trends, and to examine new employment models as well as the viability of current tax and social systems for robotics.
  • Insurance – a mandatory insurance scheme to cover harm and damage caused by AI and robots. Further, a fund should be set up to ensure that victims are compensated in cases of accidents caused by driverless cars.
  • Code of Conduct – guidance for engineers covering the ethical design, production and use of robots, including incorporation of “kill” switches so that robots can be turned off in emergencies.

The Committee singles out driverless vehicles as in “urgent need” of a new rule book, ideally a global one, since a fragmented regulatory approach is likely to “hinder implementation and jeopardise European competiveness.”

The United Kingdom

The UK’s Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology also issued a report, in October last year, on AI and robotics[2]. The report concludes that, whilst robotics and AI hold the potential to fundamentally reshape the way we live and work, the Government does not yet have an adequate strategy, and calls for a commission to be established in order to examine social, ethical and legal implications in this developing area.

Dr Tania Mathias, interim Chair of the Committee, said:  “Government leadership in the fields of robotics and AI has been lacking. Some major technology companies — including Google and Amazon — have recently come together to form the ‘Partnership on AI’. While it is encouraging that the sector is thinking about the risks and benefits of AI, this does not absolve the Government of its responsibilities. It should establish a ‘Commission on Artificial Intelligence’ to identify principles for governing the development and application of AI, and to foster public debate.

The United States

The United States does not have and is not currently contemplating a comprehensive national approach to artificial intelligence and related technologies. Both public and private sectors are researching, developing and implementing artificial intelligence, robotics and automation at rates that far outpace law that addresses the same.

The bulk of federal agency guidance, state legislation, and court decisions are focused on two technologies: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also referred to as drones, and more recently, autonomous vehicles (i.e., self-driving cars). UAVs are of particular interest for their military and law enforcement use.

  • As of January 2017, thirty-three states have enacted laws about UAVs[3] and twenty states have considered laws on autonomous vehicles.[4]
  • The Federal Aviation Administration issued a regulation on UAVs in June 2016, which set parameters on where, when and how UAVs may be operated. Among other restrictions, the FAA requires a visual line of sight between the remote pilot and the UAV at all times.[5]
  • The Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration jointly issued non-binding guidance in September 2016 on autonomous vehicles, including considerations for developers and a model state policy.[6]
  • Finally, the Obama administration, near the end of its tenure in 2016, issued a report titled “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence”[7] and a corresponding national strategic plan on research and development of artificial intelligence.[8] The plans were drafted based on five workshops held during the year and contemplate avenues of further research, as well as how artificial intelligence may allow the government to improve its services delivery. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will take action on this topic, which has since been removed from the White House website.

As other robotics products saturate the market, and until a tipping point is reached due to the increasing use and capabilities of artificial intelligence, U.S. lawmakers will likely continue to address related legal concerns in a piecemeal manner similar to that of UAVs and autonomous vehicles.


The Japanese Government recognizes the need for robot regulatory reform and has devised “Japan’s Robot Strategy” and introduced a Robot Revolution Initiative (RRI) in 2015.

“Japan’s Robot Strategy”, devised by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), is a series of policies for regulating robotics over a five-year strategic plan. It aims to ensure that Japan continues to maintain its reputation as a robotics superpower via regulation and deregulation methodologies that are well-balanced and promote safety standards for consumer protection. In that plan, METI encourages the use of core technologies such as artificial intelligence to develop “Next Generation Robots” in a variety of sectors. There is also a Robot Revolution Realization Council responsible for reviewing existing Japanese laws in light of these rapidly advancing robotic technologies. These laws include the Radio Law, Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Law, Industrial Safety and Health Act, Road Traffic Law, Road Transport Vehicle Act, Civil Aeronautics Act, Consumer Products Safety Act and ISO 13482 Safety Standard for Life-supporting Robots, amongst others.  Like the United States, Japan is also looking at measures to regulate the operation of uninhabited airborne type robots (UAVs).

As a result of its studies, the Robot Revolution Realization Council has recommended regulatory reform pursuant to its guidelines known as the “Implementation of Robot Regulatory Reform”. These guidelines call for the following (i) a legal framework for consumer protection and, at the same time, (ii) a new legal system or easing of current regulations (“deregulation”) to make effective use of robots. So, for example, field testing for robots is to be promoted and is a form of deregulation designed to enable regulators and manufacturers to uncover unanticipated robotic risks prior to actual implementation.

Research studies are also being conducted by Japanese universities and recommendations for robot laws have been proposed. The joint research of Waseda University Humanoid Robotics Institute and Peking University Law School, for example, proposes a three-level hierarchy of “Robot Law” comprising (i) “The Robot Safety Governance Act” to extend machine safety regulations to robotics, (ii) “The Humanoid Morality Act” to regulate the relationship between humans and robots, and (iii) “Revisions”, being necessary modifications to existing Japanese laws to ensure that they do not conflict with these advanced robotics technologies.

According to a Government estimate published in the Japan Times in April 2016, “AI technologies are expected to generate an economic return of around ¥121 trillion in Japan by 2045”.[9] As a result of this anticipated rapid growth, the Japanese Government also plans to introduce some basic rules for AI research and development which will focus on privacy protection and developer accountability.

All of the above is consistent with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revitalise the Japanese economy through so-called “Abenomics” which promotes the use of robotics and AI, amongst other things.  No doubt it will take some time for Japan to implement a sophisticated robotics legal regime, but will this be the saving grace of “Abenomics” which, to date, has arguably  decelerated economic growth and fuelled the continuance of deflation.