Haunted by a future work shortage, Europe grapples with robots laws

21 Feb 2017 | News
In Brussels, France and Finland, the challenge automation poses for employment is starting to be taken seriously. But MEPs have rejected a proposal to make owners pay social security for their robots

A growing number of policymakers, lawyers and economists in Europe are beginning to face up to the job-eating threat of automation, with the Finnish government trialling a basic monthly income for the unemployed, while French socialist candidate Benoit Hamon has given a tax on robots a policy platform in his presidential campaign.

Proposals to give robot workers legal status and make their owners pay social security for them were debated – and ultimately rejected – by MEPs last week. However, they did back an ethical framework for robot development and deployment and liability for the actions of robots, including self-driving cars.

All this activity is part of a growing public debate in Europe about artificial intelligence technologies that are built into a variety of robots and other intelligent systems, including self-driving cars and workplace automation.

Behind the debate is the fear that with robots doing all the work there will be fewer jobs for humans, reducing the tax take and undermining pension pots.

“My strong feeling is we’re looking at a tipping point involving a transition that is going to leave most people behind,” said Martin Ford, Silicon Valley-based software developer and author of ‘The Rise of the Robots’. “We can argue about whether the massive disruption is coming in 10, 15 or 20 years – but it’s coming."

Machines, such as the calculator, were once limited to narrow tasks. Now, machines can work things out for themselves, proceeding by trial and error, and are helping to disrupt the world of work as we know it.

Technology companies like Amazon and Youtube are amassing huge valuations and revenues with small workforces.

At the same time, technologies they are developing, such as driverless cars being created by Uber, Google and Tesla for example, are nearly advanced enough for mainstream use, suggesting driving jobs are in imminent jeopardy.

“If the current mood - and votes such as the Brexit one - are against globalisation, then the next big bone of contention will be robots,” says Chris Holder, partner at UK law firm Bristows. “Its effect on jobs in the next 10-15 years is going to be vast.”

Conflicting outlooks

However, there is little consensus on the number of jobs at risk of computerisation. In a paper published in 2013, researchers at Oxford University estimated that 47 percent of jobs in the US will evaporate. By contrast, a report published last year by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said that across its 21-member countries, 9 percent of jobs could be automated on average.

Defenders of robots say automated workers will create as many jobs as they destroy and new rules or taxes would impede a promising field.

Susanne Bieller of the European Robotics Association, says robots are an engine of productivity and economic growth. 

There is no proven relationship between increasing robot numbers and unemployment.

“Look at the German automotive industry, which has increased the amount of robots it uses but also the number of jobs,” she said. “Germany has many more robots than France, but less unemployment.”

But robots are leaving people in simple-to-automate fields permanently unemployed. Matias Cortes, a lecturer in economics at Manchester University, has studied how automation has cut manufacturing jobs in the US. “In my research I’ve seen people who don’t go on to find new jobs,” he said.

Mixed policy responses

Anticipating a shortage of work as the economy progressively automates, the Finnish government is experimenting with giving 2,000 unemployed people a guaranteed stipend – a “basic income” – of €560 a month for two years.

Some cities in the Netherlands considered a similar pilot programme in 2015 before deciding against it, and Swiss voters actually rejected a basic income with a 77 percent majority in a 2016 referendum.

In the race for the Élysée Palace in France, Hamon is presenting a similar basic income plan, saying a tax on industrial robots can cover the cost, an idea Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates backed in an interview last week and which Tesla founder and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has also supported.

Hamon’s opponents in the election have called the proposal unaffordable, and suggest more job training instead. Bieller said Hamon would need to levy €1 million on each smart robot in France to make his basic income maths add up.

Despite criticism of the idea of taxing robots to protect Europe’s social security systems, Ford believes the time for action is now. “We need to think about these things now, given how long it takes the political system to work,” he said.

Not that he anticipates the US making a move anytime soon. “These ideas are not much invading mainstream thought here,” he said.

Holder does not see the UK government kicking many of these ideas around either. “With Brexit, everything will go by the wayside – it will suck up all our internal resources,” he said.

Taxing robots might be too tricky anyway. The difficulty starts with figuring out what a robot is.

The European Parliament’s definition, which is widely seen as too broad, covered everything from drones, self-driving cars, surgical and factory robots to AI-powered systems, such as virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Siri and Google Now.

The legal issues are just as knotty. Lawyers are already re-writing laws to accommodate the testing of new self-driving technology. But they have a lot more work ahead of them. 

“If something goes wrong with autonomous systems, what happens next,” asks Holder. “The standard of negligence will change. Will it become negligent for people to drive themselves? And what rules do we need for care robots [….] looking after older people?”

The positive case

Still, robots remain relatively simple. “We are a long way from robots that can think for themselves and tell us what to do,” said Holder. “Getting most of them to hold a cup of water is already a big enough challenge.”

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas last week questioned the conventional wisdom that robots will steal our jobs, pointing to a 2015 study by the Fraunhofer Institute, which he said, “Indicated that EU companies which are intensive users of robotics are less likely to offshore production to low cost regions because robots improved their cost position so much that they can stay in high-wage regions.”

Robots could also help repatriate manufacturing jobs, according to Michael Nagenborg, managing director of the 3TU Centre for Ethics and Technologies at the University of Twente. With robots poised to displace jobs in developing economies like China, which has seen by far the biggest industrial robot growth in the world, companies could move back to Europe.

“China wants to become an innovation country, meaning it could lose its low-cost production – so there won’t be the same advantage of moving your operations there. Instead, companies will return,” Nagenborg said.

Machines may be encroaching more and more on routine work in factories and offices but they are not yet a match for the carbon-based thinker.

“In my reading it’s exaggerated to say robots will replace all jobs,” said Cortes. “Historically, we’ve had a lot of progress with new tech. People may have feared the first industrial revolution, but we’ve seen that it and every new wave has always delivered positive aggregate effects. There’ll still be jobs – they'll just be different.”

“I read every day that AI will make my job redundant,” added Holder. “I may no longer have to go to libraries to read my law books – there are machines to do this for me – but I’m still needed to provide advice at the end of the day.”

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